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Saturday, August 14, 2004

We're OK

Somehow, I don't know how or why, and boy, do I feel terribly guilty when I look around, we made it through with hardly a scratch.

Yesterday at 1:00 PM (was it only yesterday?) I ran to the store for some extra snacks and beer -- hurricane supplies! -- before everything closed up. I was keeping an ear on the weather reports: Category 2, we'll ride it out. By the time I had driven one mile and arrived at the store, the storm had been upped to a Category 3, and by the time I had driven back to our rental house, it was Category 4.

Andrew was a 5. While doing repairs in South Dade, every single person Jorge met who rode that storm out thought they were going to die. Time to think about evacuating then! Little did we know after arriving home late the evening before from a quick east coast visit to see my brother's brand new baby, that our riverfront neighborhood had already long been evacuated.

After everything was secured at the house as best we could, we decided to run out to the marina one more time and put some extra lines on the boat. It was breezy, balmy, and overcast, then, like someone flipping a switch, windy, lightning, and pelting rain. We figured even though our stilt house is steel frame construction, it's only plywood sheeting and vinyl siding between us and Charley, so on the way back from the marina to the house, to the sounds of terrified children's begging, we made our decision to run. I grabbed some t-shirts for the kids to use as pajamas and we headed east at 3:30 PM, just as Charley made landfall at Captiva Island.

Elle just happened to be wearing her favorite outfit of all time, her Dorothy Gale Halloween costume. We left so quickly though, she didn't have shoes, ruby or otherwise.

The drive was dangerous with gusts threatening to push us off the road and the fear of a tornado or two making an appearance. This was the first and only time I've actually ever heard the Emergency Broadcast System. Its alarm went off and advised us that Hurricane Charley was scheduled to make landfall in the next several hours between Naples and Tampa. At that point it was coming down our street. Then we lost the station (later to find out the building broadcasting had blown away.) We made it safely to Hollywood, dropped the girls with family, grabbed some water and chainsaws, and came straight back.

The drive was even more treacherous on the return trip with snapped trees and power lines blocking roadways in the pitch black. (But boy, did the air smell fresh and piney!) We arrived at the house around 11:00 PM. Some missing siding, some leaves blown inside from where the sliding glass door had blown open about four inches. The other houses in the neighborhood seemed to have come through okay; certainly not underwater as we expected. Jorge and I continued on to the marina. The boat was still there and the weather had settled down so we headed out to check on the island. Perfect. Just as we left it. One tree down across the boardwalk to the beach. That was it.

After hearing about conditions in formerly charming downtown Punta Gorda, we took that route home. We could not see very well in the complete darkness but you could feel how horrible it was. The entire historic waterfront district smashed. Roads were impassable. Eerie silence. Death. You could sense it.

When the sun came up this morning, it was much worse than we initially thought. Our neighborhood is far from all right. Nearly every house has lost its roof. A trailer park next door has been flattened. These people have nothing. Everyone standing around just frozen with disbelief and shock. Where do you even begin?

We went back into town today after checking on friends, who, being surrounded by unbelievable destruction, also fortunately came out unscathed. Our homeschool group's waterfront meeting place, Gilchrist Park, is now being used as a command post and makeshift morgue. Door to door searches are underway for storm victims. Houses and businesses are being spraypainted with fluorescent orange codes for the numbers of alive or dead inhabitants and a boxes with Xs for whether or not the building is habitable. The destruction is so complete photographing it felt obscene, like adding insult to injury.

We are in the center of some of the worst the storm had. When we evacuated, there was no doubt in either Jorge's or my mind that when we returned we would be homeless. Two times over. But we're fine on both counts.

Power will be out for who knows how long. Cell service is unavailable. I'm surprised our still unburied, but repaired, phone line is working.

These poor people don't know it yet, but this is only going to get much worse.

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