CHARLEY BEARS DOWN, FLORIDA BEARS UP
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 13, 2004, 2:27amEST -- As Hurricane Charley grinds across the Cuban countryside and moves closer to the warm Gulf Of Mexico, where it is likely to pick up speed and may become a Category 3, about 350 miles north my condominium building in the middle of a resort golf course here is nearly empty. We are under a mandatory evacuation order that I am reluctant to obey, while my wife would like to flee to Georgia. My daughter, meanwhile, is convinced nothing will happen.
Something has already happened. I've gone out and bought $146 worth of non-perisable goods keep us through the next two weeks if we are without stores and power and water all that time, and sometime after dawn I'll be taping up our windows with $36 worth of adhesive and plastic and blue tape so they won't shatter if a 120-mile wind tries to drive a six-foot palm frond through them.
My wife and daughter and I, an older widow, a blind man, and a fit senior couple are all that remain among the occupants of 32 units; the rest are either in flight to the north, or left long ago to avoid Florida's scorching summer heat. The furniture from my lanai is now ready for us in the corridor that runs down the center of the building, the place we'll take shelter if the windows do break or if gets too scary to stay inside the two-bedroom, two bath unit we moved to from Hollywood, Calif., just 14 months ago.
A lanai, by the way, is a screened-in porch that sometimes includes a pool, but it is notable for its fine-meshed screen that keeps out the rapacioous "no-see-ums," tiny gnats that are just a hair above microscopic in size but have very healthy bites. About lanais, one meteorologist on a live tv call-in news show told a caller who wondered if he could put his lawn furniture in his pool that yes, he could, but his lanai wouldn't be there tomorrow night. There are just thousands of them within a mile of me, so it looks like every loafer in Florida is going to have a job this Fall.
At the gas station about a mile from us, I found cars lined up for a long wait when I went to fill up the tank earlier this afternoon. The pennies popped up and on every second or so, and with every regular pump in thebig 8-bay station occupied, filling up took a good 15 minutes - once you got to a pump. As I waited in the line, a stranger waiting behind my car in a construction company pickup climbed out of the cab, strode by me and and called back. "Want a soda?" The man, Ron Lee, came back a few minutes later with an ice-cold Coke that took the edge of the 90-degree heat and high humidity.
The corporate community didn't come off so well. Down the the street at Bank of America, i saw a bank employee turn a way a desperate young mother and her young child who arrived just seconds after 4 p.m., stranding her and several others who may not have had access to the ATM (the mother said the bank card hadn't come yet). As the mother pleaded, all of the bank's cheery bull about serving customers and community vanished in the quiet click of a key in the front door's lock. All that talk of community service didn't keep it open an extra minute.
The Sarasota County emergency services office a few miles to the south was manning the phones with articulate people who answered them within a minute or two; in Manatee County, a young man who sounded like a Boy Scout checked my address with me twice, with a five-minute hold in between, and then went away for another 20 minutes; I finally hung up. A second call went through after a few minutes of back and forth with the operator, but the woman who took the call talked to other operators for three or four minutes before she finally turned her attention to my call.
There is a wide range of competence in Florida, wider than I remember encountering elsewhere. The waitresses are often surly, for instance, probably because they actually earn just $2.31 an hour before tips and taxes. In grocery stores, people bagging groceries can be in their mid-70s; gas station cashiers overcharge with alarming regularity and often seem like teenage dropouts. Some of the workers at McDonald's are just 14 years old; others are almost 80. Under the pressure of a looming major hurricane, all these flaws in the body politic might seem likely tear the fabric of order apart, but so far, that doesn't seem to have happened.
As tens of thousands of people stream into Wal-Mart for instance, they get a pleasant surprise: flashlights and ice chests, and ice, and every kind of battery is plentiful. At Home Depot, there's plenty of plywood to cover those patio windows, and staff volunteer to lead you into the looming aisles to find obscure objects you pursue.
We worried a lot about the man that my daughter works for, a fellow who owns a meat company and lives on Siesta Key, an exclusive isle with the only good night life in Sarasota County. He'd told her before she left work late this afternoon that he might stay at his home, which is right on the water, alone with his cats and beautiful dogs. The key began a mandatory evacuation starting at noon Thursday.
Meanwhile, the things we heard on tv grew progressively more terrifying, suggesting that all power to Siesta Key would be cut off at midnight, that bridges to and from the island would be closed, that even the sewers and water would be shut down. As these became more and more grave in tone, I called my daughter's boss. Not to worry; he had a condo on the other side of the key, facing it from land, and he was there with his aunt, the dogs and the cats.
So now, at 3:08 a.m., we wait. Will we get hit by a devastating Category 3 hurricane, winds and lightning and 3-8 inches of rain that flattens the entire community in what is touted as the worst storm since 1921? Or will it generously veer north or West at the last minute, and do its damage elsewhere? I don't know, and don't want to think;
I want to go to be and find out tomorrow, sometime around noon.
Joe Shea, the American Reporter's Editor-in-Chief, lives and works in Bradenton, Fla., about five miles from the beach but just a half mile from the flood-prone Manatee River.