FRANCES FILLS THE SCREEN
by Joe Shea
American Reoporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 5, 2004 (3:50am EDT) -- Unless things change pretty drastically between now and about 11 a.m. this morning, the small city where I live will be largely spared any devastation by Hurricane Frances.
Frances has dropped from a Category 4 storm with 145 m.p.h. winds to a 90-m.p.h. Category 2 hurricane and is expected to diminish further in strength as it lumbers across Florida on a northwesterly line beginning about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach in Stuart, Fla., and likely exiting about 40 miles north of Tampa into the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, about 2 million people are without electricity, 2.5 million are under an evacuation order from the state, and tens of thousands are in shelters all over the state and in Georgia and South Carolina, too.
Here in Bradenton, where mobile home occupants have been the principal evacuees, the shelters are not far from capacity, filled with our own people, refugees from Melbourne and other coastal cities on the Atlantic side of the state, and those with pets, which are accepted in two shelters here.
The wind is blowing and there are lots of pine cones and palm tree debris in the streets in Bradenton, but so far no apparent damage; the tropical force winds are due to hit several hours from now. We expect to lose power, and with it, our Internet connection at The American Reporter. We're well-stocked with food, water, flashlights, radios, ice and everything else we need in the event the power outage lasts more than a day. Down in Punta Gorda, just a 40-minute drive south of here, the power is still not restored to all homes, and the same is true in the central, rural areas of the state that were hit by the cyclonic force of Hurricane Charley.
There is wall-to-wall coverage on the local stations of the arrival of Frances, which officially made landfall less than an hour ago and is expected to linger for some 18 hours in its slow-motion progress across the peninsula. Television has been great about covering the arrival of Frances from every conceivable angle, and many of the networks seem to have their stars like Geraldo Rivera and Anderson Cooper on the scene, but you get the impression they are overreacting to the fact that they weren't here for Hurricane Charley, which was the kind of real nightmare tv loves so much.
The storm is actually much larger than the state, so all of it is affected to one degree or another, but as with Charley, we lucked out. Hurricane Charley was originally anticipated to hit very close to us - close enough to rips our roofs off, and probably our socks, too - but it found an easy entry point in Port Charlotte and sailed into Punta Gorda like a juggernaut from Hell.
My wife and daughter and I drove down to Punta Gorda the night of the storm, just a few hours after it ended. It was a scene of impossible devastation. We drove under and over downed power lines, saw houses where the walls were gone but the framed certificates stood calmly on the inside wall, saw cinder block buildings turned into heaps of rubble, and noted the endless, overwhelming dark. Everything but the headlights of cars and utility trucks (which got there quickly, allowing us to cross those power lines) was bathed in night, in a fierce darkness that hid the utter devastation of a picture-perfect coastal community.
The devastation left us deeply shocked, like Sept. 11 did. We drove to a Methodist church in Myakka City to volunteer, and the pastor sent us out to several huge tomato farms in the rural areas, where we fed some of the migrant workers whose trailers had vanished in the storm. They were tiny people, mostly from Guatemala, and they ate the meals of corn, chicken strips and beans hungrily after a long Saturday in the fields.
Hurricane Frances promises tons of rain and lots of wind but little of the sheer force and intensity of Charley. We have been spared again, or seem to be here at 4:10 a.m., when it was once scheduled to hit (it's now scheduled for somewhere between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.). The patio furniture has been taken in, the cars safely tucked away in a couple of nearby garages, and my wife and daughter are fast asleep.
I only hope that nothing terrible wakes them up.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter, which recently moved from earthquake country (Hollywood, Calif.) to hurricane country..