It was about this time 12 years ago when Hurricane Charley paid a visit to Florida. It came up through the Caribbean, passing just west of the Florida Keys, and then came across the middle of Florida, right where I was living northeast of Orlando. I remember this storm well for a variety of reasons.
At the time I was renting a house in a suburb of Orlando, not far from where I had owned a house a few years earlier. I had just sold my rv lot in the Keys and had moved back north for awhile to catch my breath and figger out my next move. I rented this place because it was affordable even though it had way more room than I needed. I was in the early stages of minimalism and it was me, KC, a truck, a kayak, and little else. I wasn’t working anywhere, rather I was trying to get something off the ground on my own, with not a lot of success. I was still learning computer stuff so it was slow going.
The other issue I was having was dealing with a serious family issue. Around the beginning of the year my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was starting to fade quickly. I was making a trip up to Pa. every month to spend a few days and help with what was to come. So when Charley came a calling, my mind was on other things.
I have been in many a storm throughout the years. The first being Agnes in 1972. I was still living at my parents when the remnants hit, flooding everything. There were plenty more storms later and after Charley hit. But by far, Charley was and has been the worst so far.
We all knew Charley was coming. The forecasts kept track as usual but being it was coming in from the Gulf side of Florida and we were well over 100 miles away, nobody thought much about it. The weather bunnies were in their usual panic and the stores were getting cleaned out of batteries, ice, water, and beer. I was, of course, paying little attention to the goings on. I was tracking the storm but thought little of what would happen if it came my way. I found out quick enough how wrong I was.
On a Friday the storm was heading my way and still was packing 100 mph winds. Rare for a storm to be so strong when over land. It had been decades since so strong a storm had hit the Orlando area and as it got closer, everyone started to realize some serious feces was about to strike the wind movement device. The weather deteriorated as the day went on and by late afternoon, we were under hurricane conditions.
As the storm moved in I did nothing to prepare. I wasn’t concerned about the house as it was just a rental. Instead I frittered away on the computer. Outside the winds and rain increased and finally around 8:30 the power went out. It was then I realized I had no candles, one flashlight with no extra batteries, and very little food in the fridge.
The storm continued to pound away with the eye making a beeline right for where I was living. Behind the house was a small local park with picnic tables, a ballfield, and a stand of sand pines. Tall, skinny pine trees which thrived in sandy soil. Around 11:00 I started hearing loud snapping noises. I couldn’t see outside but found out later the snapping was the sand pines getting shredded by the high winds. This went on for a few hours as the eye passed overhead. I fully expected the roof to start coming off any moment but it held. I stayed up until 1:30 or so until the worst had passed by and finally went to sleep.
In the morning I got up, quickly got dressed and went out to survey the damage. There was still no power, the water was running at least, and no phone nor internet. The house itself suffered no damage. My truck had scratch marks all over the paint from the wind blowing debris against it but otherwise, was ok. The backyard was another story.
All the sand pines in the park had been split or shattered in the wind. It looked for all the world like an artillery barrage had laid waste to the park. Trees were down everywhere including across streets and in some cases on peoples houses. In the far corner of the lot where I was renting, one sand pine, about 60′ tall was leaning over towards the neighbor’s house. Said neighbor was standing outside looking at said tree with a nasty look on his face. When he saw me he went apeshit.
“You better do something about this tree right now before it falls and hits my house.”, he said. I just looked at him and the tree.
“You better do something right now or I’m calling my lawyer and suing you.”, he said. The two of us did not get along as it was. For reasons I still don’t know of to this day, said neighbor and his ugly, disgusting wife, took an immediate dislike to me the day I moved into the house. I don’t know why. I made no noise, kept the grass cut, bothered nobody, but they hated me. It’s a gift, what can I say.
When the idiot was done ranting at me I calmly explained several things to him.
I don’t own the house, nor the tree so I ain’t responsible for it.
Nobody is calling anybody because the entire town had been laid to waste by the storm. No power, no phones.
And most importantly, I didn’t give a shit.
It was the last time the two of us had any conversation. Eventually when I moved out, I flipped the asshole off along with his ugly wife. Never to be seen again.
In the meantime, I was amazed by all the damage the storm had caused. I got into my truck and drove over to check on a friend on the other side of town. We were getting the following bands from the storm and it was still windy and rainy. I had to take several backstreets as most of the main roads were closed due to debris and down power lines. Houses all over had their roofs taken off along with other damage. My friend was ok, having set up a generator in his garage. He had enough power to run the fridge and a small ac unit in his living room. He had moved his girlfriend in with her kids and they were all nice and comfy. I left and headed back noticing power was out everywhere and no stores were going to be open. I was also aware of how much gas I had in the truck so I had to be careful.
I got back to the house ok and went out back to start picking up some of the branches and other crap which had blown into the yard. It was then an amazing thing happened.
I had been feeding a stray cat which had been coming around on a regular basis to my back door. She was a beautiful long haired grey and white which someone had abandoned. She was shy and would only let me pet her slightly now and then, but she always showed up for something to eat. When I went out to clean up the yard I saw her walking around the debris. Then off to the side, I noticed another grey and white flash. I walked over and there was a small kitten which couldn’t have been more than 4 weeks old. It looked just like the mother. Of course, I couldn’t resist so I picked her up and brought her inside.
The little thing was exhausted and scared at first but I laid down on my couch with her and she fell asleep on my chest. I knew the mother would never be tamed but I decided to keep the kitten and see how she would do. It took some time but she eventually calmed down. The problem was KC, my other cat, who was insanely jealous of this new arrival. Anytime the kitten came around, KC was there to hiss and swat her away. The kitten wanted to go back out with her mother but I knew she would not survive so she stayed. Later on, after the storms, I got her all fixed up at the vet and she became a part of the family. And of course, I named her Charley…
We were together for 10 years. Charley never did learn to relax. The picture above one was one of her rare moments of bliss. KC never got used to her and as a result, Charley spent most of her life hiding in the nether regions of the boat or avoiding contact, unless it was time to eat or she smelled shrimp. Then she was out and friendly.
I lost her in 2015 not long after KC died. I miss them both very much still. They were my family for a long time.
Anyways, finding Charley was the only bright spot of the days following the hurricane. The power remained off for 5 more days after the storm hit. Things started to get interesting. I was running out of food, and since there was no power, there was no ac, and being in the middle of August, it was a bit tepid. By the 3rd day things were getting desperate. I was living on crackers and peanut butter, and warm drinks as there was no ice to be had anywhere. You couldn’t drive anyplace as the roads were closed. And I was bored out of my mind. No power means no computer. No where to go, and no gas. Finally I drove over to see if perhaps the local grocerteria was open yet and noticed the local Wendy’s seemed to be open and had a line of people waiting. I pulled in and saw people coming out with actual food in their hands, along with drinks, with ice. It seems the manager was smart enough to get a generator going and had the place up and running for business. It took an hour wait in line for a cheeseburger, fries, and cold drink with lots of ice, but damn, it was worth it. I don’t promote the fast-food industry very much but in this case I was extremely grateful to the folks at this Wendy’s outlet. They did good.
Finally, on the 5th day, the power was restored to my neighborhood. I got online and saw just how bad the damage had been. The town I was living in got hit the hardest. Downed trees, damaged homes, flooding, and more. It was bad, a lot worse than anyone had expected. I also found out later many others did not get power restored for weeks. But, there was more to come.
Charley was the first storm to hit the area, but not the last. In the space of about a month, Hurricanes Francis and Jeannie both came a calling. Both storms followed the same path coming ashore on the east coast of Florida down near Stuart and heading up to Orlando. Frances was a bit milder but Jeannie stayed strong, though not as strong as Charley. I lost power for 2 days after Jeannie hit. And yes, I was more better prepared this time. But for all of us in the little town, it was more than enough. We were all exhausted from the constant preparation and enduring the seemingly endless string of storms coming through.
Finally, the storms stopped and the clean up began. It took a few years for all the damage to be cleaned up from these three storms. Many people had nothing more than tarps over their heads because it took so long to get roofs repaired. I remember passing long convoys of utility trucks and workers coming down from up north to help get the power back running again. It was almost surreal for awhile.
I moved out of the house later in the year. The tree which threatened the neighbor was taken down by the crew which cleaned up the park. Eventually things got back to normal. Since then, Florida hasn’t had much more in the way of storms. Wilma paid a brief visit to the Keys while Katrina, Ike, and the others passed by. The Florida Keys have been fortunate to avoid any major storms. If and when one does hit, it’s going to be nasty. The islands are not prepared to withstand a major storm and things will drastically change if a category 3 or better makes a direct hit.
Right now, as I type this, we are getting into the heart of the storm season. So far it’s been pretty calm and being stuck here in the mountains of Pa., I have nothing to worry about. Except, Key West is still home and I’d really hate to see anything happen to it.
Eventually a storm will hit the Keys and it will be most unpleasant. It’s just something everyone has to live with there like the peanut has to deal with tornadoes in Oklahoma, or the islands of Hawaii have to deal with volcanoes. Every place has it’s dangers and you just learn to live with said dangers. At least now I have enough experience to know when to prepare and when to get the shit out of Dodge if a storm comes. I just hope I don’t experience another summer like I did in 2004.