by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
October 24, 2005
WAITING FOR WILMA
BRADENTON, Fla., Oct. 24, 2005, 1:44 a.m. EST -- The porch furniture is piled high in the living room, the refrigerator is stocked with cold cuts, the cooler is packed with ice, every appropriate container is full of fresh water, and all the flashlights and the portable radios are ready to go. Now all we need is a storm.
Hurricane Wilma is about 100 miles off the southwestern coast of Florida as I write at 12:42 a.m., recently bumped up to a Category 3 storm capable of inflicting enormous damage wherever it hits. That appears to be somewhere between Naples, Fla., where my cousin Patti lives, and the Everglades, the magnificent wild swamp south of Alligator Alley that is one of the largest preserved wetlands in the world.
According to the weather people, the storm will bring winds from 60 to 70mph to Bradenton, where I live on the South Florida Gulf Coast 60 miles south of Tampa.
For the folks on Marco Island, a community of 20,000 boat-owning retirees just south of Naples, it could mean once-in-a-lifetime devastation of the kind suffered in New Orleans. That's because the tightly organized little city actually is a complex web of interlinked canals that could experience a flood surge of anywhere from 8 to 17 feet, according to the U.S. Weather Service.
Just off Bradenton, where I live about a half mile from a large bay that opens into the Gulf, is Anna Maria Island to the north, and then Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key and Casey Key to the south. These barrier islands are not at nearly as much risk from Wilma as they once were from Charlie - they were spared that time, though - but they are in danger of losing more of their precious beaches, where the sand in some years is rated the finest in the world.
Back on the mainland, though, you go down through Sarasota to Philippi Creek, then Venice, North Port, Englewood, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, the last four of them places where tourist and blue-collar communities were devastated by Charlie last year. There's a long stretch of mostly nothing then, all the way down to Fort Myers, and once again the population starts to build up and fades away again into tropical swamps and retirement communities until you get to Naples, which is about 130 miles south of Bradenton via Interstate 75 and 30 or 40 miles south of Fort Myers, a true resort town with a Spring Break rep just shy of Fort Lauderdale's.
Across the Gulf to the southeast, of course, is Cancun and Cozumel, the resort cities on the upper tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, where Wilma just had her way with thousands of tourists and many more Mexicans, many of whom will probably be on their way to Arizona and Texas as soon as the weather clears, having been beaten out of work by Wilma and sometimes left homeless to boot. After just a 24-hour visit whirlwind tour of the Mexican resorts, Wilma decided to take a straighter course to America, and on her current trajectory to the northeast, moving along at 18mph, she will hit around Naples and Marco Island around 7 a.m. in the morning. Before she gets here, up north in Bradenton we'll have started getting lots of rain from the "feeder bands" of the outer circulation, and as that meets a cold front coming down from Texas there will be a lot of tornadoes at the margins. A tornado is what I fear most, and we have a tornado warning, a tropical storm warning and a whole lot of groceries to prepare us.
But that is hardly the whole of Wilma, or even the least of these storms. We're keeping a wary out for Alpha, which doesn't seem to threaten our state, just as we've watched Wilma's development way out in the Caribbean since last Friday afternoon, when it was just a "tropical wave." Those precede a "tropical depression," which precedes a "tropical storm," which becomes a hurricane when it damn well pleases to blow at 75mph or more.
The thing is that all of these storms bear a lot of watching, most of it done on television and much of it also on the Internet at the government weather site, www.noaa.gov. There the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center and a whole bunch of departments and branches and sub-branches hold forth in copious forecasts, advisories, warnings, updates, position reports and the like which find their way either onto my desktop as background maps or into my AOL mailbox. During a big storm like this one, I can expect 30 to 40 pieces of welcome mail - I mean mail that is welcome - that allows me to save money by not spending the $300 to $1,000 a storm can squeeze even from the pockets, if we have them, of turnips like me. Yet the waiting is far from a pleasure. There is nothing remotely sublime or blissful about listening to storm forecasts 30 or 40 times a day from CNN or local Bay New 9, the Bright House network news channel, the Weather Channel and a couple of Tampa Bay - and Sarasota-area radio stations. But I do keep informed.
We've so far spent something under $60 to ready ourselves for Wilma, and most of that will probably be wasted if all goes as it appears it will go a few hours from now (1:12 a.m.). I concentrated on getting sweet things that would stave off boredom, while my wife concentrated on keeping me from buying them. I ended up with two pounds of cooked ham, two pounds of turkey breast, a pound and a half of roast beef, a pound of Swiss cheese, some nice onion rolls, a half-gallon of ice cream and some sugar-free Jell-O cups, along with a box of wheat thins, a can of tuna, two cans of sliced peaches, a small tub of cottage cheese and two small tubs of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. I can't believe that's at all interesting, except that the tab at Wal-Mart came to $45 and I can't figure out how.
The wind is picking up now. It's become steady instead of intermittent, and it coming directly at the seven floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that front on our lanai and the southeast-facing side of the building. The rain has come and gone unpredictably, but it often does that here, and thankfully tonight there has been little lightning and no thunder at all. But does some evil-minded humongous tornado await us out there in the dark, out past the parking lot and the swimming pool and the golf course, out there beyond Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria? It's pitch dark beyond the palm trees except for the tiny infrequent streetlamps swaying in the dark, and there's no way to know. If it comes, the windows will resist winds of up to 100mph or so, but then things get iffy. A few miles more, say 115, and stuff starts crashing through the lanai screens. At about 125mph, the roof starts to feel a tug, and maybe the corridor windows break, meaning that children of the hurricane come screaming past the inner doors of our condos, stopping only to smash the lights. Our entry door is sucked out into their playground, along with the furniture too light to resist and any real children not well seated, and then begins a katabatic maelstrom that in a few minutes erases the accumulations of our lives and at last, our lives as well.
That's why some people evacuate. Having neither ready cash nor a current job, and lots of bills to pay with whatever money I can scrounge up, it's almost as painful an option as staying is when good sense or preternatural instinct tells you to go. Just now (1:26am), almost on cue, that old familiar whistle of the wind has started to rise. I'm waiting for Wilma, my wife and my daughter sound asleep nearby. It's dark out there.
Joe Shea moved to Bradenton from Hollywood, Calif., in June 2003, and has experienced eight hurricanes that hit the state since then.