Sittin On A Porch

Sittin On A Porch
Our little back porch

Saturday, August 13, 2011

August 13

My life changed August 13, 2004.  People who live in Florida will remember that as the day that "started" the hurricane year of 2004.  

But it really started a week or so earlier for me.  Dad and I had flown to Charleston, SC.  We had a lay over in Charlotte, North Carolina, a really pretty airport and a nicer airport to deal with on a short jaunt then Atlanta.  Dad and I had a wonderful time in Charleston.  We rented a car and drove out to the islands, so familiar to me from the novels I had read of the area.  It was hot, it was August.  We spent a day at the Aquarium and had walked around downtown.  We stayed a little out of town in a hotel where I had been on the road so much that year I had our entire week's stay comped.  Dad and I have always enjoyed travelling together, and this was a wonderful trip.

Then we got stuck in Charlotte trying to get home because of an insignificant hurricane, Alex, sitting out the coast of North Carolina.  We sat rocking in the white rocking chairs, Dad reading his magazine, I had a novel by Dorothea Benton Frank about the barrier islands in South Carolina.  Alex churned harmlessly but with a threatening nemesis to airplanes wishing to fly away.  We made it home with only a few hours delay.  The next week I drove to Tallahassee for work and tropical storm Bonnie threatened the pan handle area, so they moved us to Gainesville to finish our work.

The second day we were working on procedure manuals, Tropical Storm Charlie swooped up around the Florida straights into the Gulf.  Fueled by the Gulf Stream the National Weather Service worried that this storm could intensify and so ordered evacuation of the greater Tampa Bay area.  This is a very populated area and the order to evacuate gave the masses a reason to migrate to the greater Orlando area with the lure of safety and the bright lights of theme parks beckoned to them.  For the most part, all went smoothly.

Rick and I excused ourselves from the meetings because we both would be affected in trying to get home if Charlie did hit the targeted area.  I lived in Bokeelia, the village on the north end of Pine Island, south of the determined hit area, but still in the cone of danger.  

The National Weather Service held tight to it's belief that it would be drawn into Tampa Bay, so once I got south of there safely, I bought some candles, batteries, chocolate, a bottle of red wine and another book.  OK, I was set.  If the storm did hit Tampa Bay, we would have a weekend of rain and some wind.  More like tropical storm weather, just perfect for spending a weekend with out power, if you are prepared.  

The drive home was actually quite lovely because everyone was evacuating to the east as I drove south.  I got home and turned on the TV to watch the weather people do their stuff.  But things just didn't seem right.

It was late morning when the weatherman said "shit".  This is a very nice, extremely conservative man who also lived in Bokeelia and for him to say something like that caught one's attention.  Then the female anchor leaned into the camera, tears in her eyes, and she begged for people on Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva, Cayo Costa and Pine Island to evacuate.  Then the TV lost service.  The storm had wobbled and then turned directly at Captiva and in that gulf stream energy built to over 168 mph winds.  The storm was small tight and moved fast.  He cut through Captiva, changed the face of Cayo Costa and then turned it eye towards the north end of Pine Island.  It raced, it raged, it blew across our little island.  

The weather man had a weather station at his house just a mile or so from ours, and then he had the Texas Weather people who come after the fact and verify storm statistics.  Bokeelia was hit by 168 mph winds.  We did not have time to evacuate.  Larry and Jannette barely had time to get home from the marina, less then a mile from each of our homes.  I had filled the bath tub with water so we would have water to flush the toilet; I filled bottles and jugs with water for drinking; I inventoried our supplies, batteries, food, candles, flashlights, extension cords, etc.  I moved potted plants up against the house on the deck.  I moved things that could fly and become missiles downstairs into the house.  My dreams of a quiet weekend were quickly turning into a living nightmare.

I had worked down in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew.  Memories of blown up houses, trees twisted and ripped from the ground, trash everywhere, people and animal homeless.  Hot, no wildlife, no birdsong only the whir of generators and the buzz of chainsaws.

Larry came home less then 30 minutes from Charlie's visit.  He brought up the chain saw to change the chain and do some routine maintenance.  I sat with Maggierose, my sweet dear black lab.  She did not like lightening and storms.  Harry and Lily, her two kids were excitable from the energy in the air.  Our ears popped from the pressure dropping as the storm closed in on us.  According to the National Weather Service Charlie was still moving towards Tampa.  We knew better.

My work cell phone rang, I picked it up and Charlie Clark from Tallahassee, a dear friend called to see where I was.  I told him Larry and I were home.  He said get out of there.  It was too late.  I lost contact with him just as the storm hit.

 It was too late by the time the storm had turned for anyone to leave.  We had a couple who did try and run when they say the turn and they spent the storm in a ditch in their van, blown off the road by one of the first waves.  Larry and I stood at the windows and watched the wind and rain.  One moment the rain would clear the windows and we would look across the street to the canal on the other side and watch the micro tornadoes spinning off of Charlies's winds aspirating the water out of the canal then there would be a loud bang and our windows would be green with leaves, totally unable to see out of them.  Then the next wave would wash the leaves away and we would see trees in our yard bent toward the ground, and the roof of the house across the street missing, the next wave took a boathouse from across the street, the next took the screened porches next door ripped away, aluminum support and all and wrap around the trees in our yard.  The house began to shudder, Maggierose jumped into the tub.  Harry and Lily followed suit.  In and out, in and out until the water in the tub was all over our wooden floors.  Then a blinding light shown through the green of the leaf covered windows.  We opened the only door to our little tree house, 600 square foot cottage sitting on the edge of a canal.  It was like a zillion candle light shining down on us.  We looked at the canal, no water.  The light came from the sun in a yard completely with out any trees standing upright.   

Larry had had time before the storm, to take our boats and move them into the secure harbor of the mangroves.  

And as we stood on the deck in the blinding light, came the train noise accompanied by our three labs howling.  Our ears started popping again and we all ran back into the security of our little Dade county pine home.  The house started shuddering and shaking violently, there was an intensity of ripping noises outside, then the aluminum window frames twisted and cracked and snapped the glass.   Larry hammered my grandmother's quilts to the windows to keep the wind from blowing in and taking our roof off.  It lasted for maybe an hour.  The second half with the three dogs and myself in the tub covered by a mattress.  Larry refused to join us in our uncomfortable tomb until he had protected our home.  

Then it was over.  Just like that, over.  We went to go out and see the damage.  We were blocked in the house by the dove cage and broken branches the size of trees, part of the deck was gone and we were not sure how much of the deck would be safe to walk in.  Thank goodness Larry had brought the chainsaw into the house.  This is a stilt house, so it is not like you take a quilt down and climb out a window.  We were to learn that trees were piled up to the windows, but they were not stable, this was not a staircase, but a cage. 

Larry and I would shove against the door and he would run the chainsaw against the trees.  Then shove and cut.  Time passed but we worked as a team trying to free ourselves into what?  It took two hours to cut ourselves out of the house, cut a path to the stairs, down the stairs and then out to the street.  We lived in a typical canal backed neighborhood where we were maybe 100 feet from the road.  

Nothing looked the same.  Our yard which had always been total shade, our house invisible to the street by the thousands of plants not sat nakedly with a skirt of shredded vegtation decorated with pieces of house and earrings made of ceiling fans.  So many ceiling fans.  Everything was different.  Once we got to the road, Larry continued to work his way up the road checking to see if there were any neighbors there.  August is usually pretty empty with the snowbirds not coming back until November.  There was only one other neighbor and his son still on our little cul de sac road.   Larry continued on to the marina and to look for Janette and Michael.  It was Janette's birthday, happy birthday Janette.

Our world had changed in more ways then we even know today.  For 2 weeks we had no water or power.  phone, radio and TV came back in about a week, but half of the houses on our street would have to be completely rebuilt.  Our house had survived because of the trees.  

I still remember every moment with the innocent eyes of the woman who survived that storm working with my partner to save our home, our animals, our lives.  I realize now, that as he walked away from our home towards the marina where he would spend weeks and weeks there seven days a week, on call 24 hours a day, that I would never see that man again.  He had addictions at that time, but they were now to take over his life, change him completely, turn his brain around into someone, something that I would not understand.  That was the beginning of his long lost spiral down.  

Each of us were affected by that storm.  I think that most of us who lived through it are still affected by that storm.  I think many still suffer from PTSD.  

We had the first Christmas Bliss that year, 2004, four months after August 13th, and we were all changed then.  Some grew stronger, others lost focus on reality.  Everyone was changed.

Now here I am, seven years later, divorced from the man who walked down that street.  The man searching for other's and worried about friends and his marina.  He was the Service Manager at the large marina in Bokeelia.  He lost his mind, his wife, the life we had worked so hard to make to set ourselves up for a retirement with every possibility.  He got brain cancer and lost his life.  Step by step, his life changed, my life changed.  

I lost more then friends, plants and a husband that day.  But as Larry worked trying to pull the marina back together.  I worked to put our house and yard back together.  Our separation began.  Friends came down and helped.  The Salvation Army and the Fire Department brought us food and water, ice and hot meals for weeks.  We set up micro societies, making rules on bathing in the two pools in the neighborhood who still had water in them.  We walked like Pavlov's dogs to the side of the street, around the piles of ceiling fans, vegetation and pieces of houses taller then a house when we heard the trucks coming up the road.  We ate each night in a different home, laughing, talking, wondering when or if our lives would get back to normal.  We grew closer, and as our neighbors made their way down from their homes in the north to look at their second homes, they were welcomed into the fold and the stories told and retold.  

Neighbors helped each other and I have to say that everyone was so generous and kind to all of us.

Hurricane Charlie chased it's tail up and across the state of Florida hitting, twisting, raging and ripping a path across the state never seen before.  Then in what felt like every two weeks we were dealing with another hurricane.  Francis, named the largest killer storm to hit Florida..... before she came to shore.  She completely covered the state, and was a lot of rain.  Then Ivan threatened, fizzled out, regained strength and circled back on our state.  Then Jeanie sat off the east coast dumping water for day after day after day.  After four days of building strength and sucking up all the salt water in the ocean dumped that water all across the bottom two thirds of the state.  We lost more plants by Jeanie then with Charlie.  Charlie ripped them up, but plants can regrow after that.  Flooding the yard for days under brackish water, plants don't come back from that.

As I tell this tiny portion of the story of August 13, 2004, more and more memories come flooding back.  The next year would be Katrina in New Orleans.  It would also be hurricane Wilma.  A fairly insignificant storm that cancelled my plans for a 50th grand birthday party.  The next year, 2006, I moved north to my little place just outside of the lovely court house square of Monticello.  

And here I am, sitting inside, remembering, releasing a little more anxiety of Charlie out of my life.  I should be out in the yard working in the garden, and I will.  But when I woke up this morning  I knew what day it was.  I knew whose birthday it was and I knew even clearer this year then any year before how much I lost that day.  I love my greenhouse, I lost thousands of plants propagated by my own hand, I lost friends, I lost my little paradise home, I lost my husband. 

Today, I will clean my house, it will feel like a distant memory of a cleanup that took years, many years ago.  I will work in the yard.  I will sit in my chair, with electricity, with running water, with air conditioning.  Harry and Marina are still with me.  They do not look like they have any idea what today is.  I am reliving a lot today.  I guess it is because of Larry's death this past March.  We had talked about that day many times.  He never saw the changes in himself.  I wonder if he saw the changes in me that I could not see myself.  

I am close to tears all morning.  This is not the depression, lost, weepiness I have been experiencing.  No, My soul is still happy and me, but my heart is mourning the losses I still fill from that day.  And it is sad, but also a celebration of what I had and what I have now.  And when I put my hands in the dirt, I will be so grateful for a soul that remembers a person I once was with such vividness.  And my soul will celebrate that I was able to move here to my little place in the woods where I have made a new happy life filled with loved one, new and old.  And I will read   Bless Our Hearts  and laugh at how unknown to each other, Ms Moon and I will write about how much joy gardening and our friendship gives to each of us.  Tears releasing sad memories replaced by joy, love and happiness.  A good trade.


  1. No one who has not lived through the sheer terror of a hurricane can know what it's like, although you certainly gave a good description. There is no controlling it. It is a force of nature- a nature which is not kind and serene and forgiving but one that is powerful and destructive beyond belief.
    I love you, Kathleen. I am glad that you survived that storm, even if it changed your life forever.

  2. Wow. You could write a novel and then people would "get" how it feels to live through a hurricane. Here in St. Augustine, we felt all those that occurred in 2004, but nowhere near the extent that you did. My eyes were filled with tears reading your account, soulfully written, and I am so sorry for all your losses.

    I admire your resilience and positive outlook, Kathleen, and am very happy you have found such a beautiful home and community where you are now.

    Thanks for telling your story.

  3. Kathleen, we were vacationing with the kids at Disney when Charlie hit. I can't think of a safer place to be but hunkered down at a Disney resort, where the world kept going, power stayed on and only a few trees were uprooted. But when we drove around the next day to discover the airport we flew into was destroyed by tornadoes, and saw the locals wandering amid the devastation, we realized the true horror of that storm. We were only inconvenienced, not devastated like so many others. We're used to tornadoes here, but the scale and duration of a fierce hurricane causes so much more widespread damage. We'll always remember Charlie as the only hurricane we have experienced, and will always be humbled by what we saw. I'm hoping you don't have to add any new hurricane memories to your experiences. I would still be missing my plants too, they're like family to me. Thanks for sharing your stories, and hopefully the weepies will pass quickly.