Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Witch: Hurricane Wilma

Typically you’d feel sorry for anyone (or anything) named Wilma, even a hurricane. Who would saddle a kid with a name like that? The brunt of playground taunts as a kid and then forever accosted with the question: Hey, where’s Fred? It’s enough to make anyone bitter and angry. Well, the Wilmas of the world got their revenge in the fall of 2005 when Hurricane Wilma struck Florida.

Optimists that we are, the intrepid residents of South Florida's east coast believed we had made it through a hurricane season basically unscathed. Dade County got a little beat up by Katrina – when she was still practicing to be a hurricane – but by in large, we had dodged the bullet. Although late October hurricanes are not unheard of, they are the exception and not the rule. I was just preparing to return all my patio furniture to my pool deck when the first rumblings regarding Wilma began.

I wasn’t among the minority in not taking Wilma seriously. Virtually no one who had been through a hurricane season in southeastern Florida gave this storm too much thought. After all, it was heading toward the Gulf. We had been watching its progress for 10 days before it hit Florida. For eight of those days it was moving northwest toward Mexico, which it did hit. We talked about the poor slobs in the Gulf area who were going to get hit again. Even when the projections had it taking a 90-degree turn on a course for the Gulf coast of southern Florida, those of us on the east coast barely blinked an eye.

First and foremost, the track had historically not been terribly accurate. The original projection had it coming directly over Palm Beach County and we were convinced that there was no way the original projected path would be correct. They rarely had been. Secondly, these things always run out of steam over land. Even if it did get to us, we were expecting a Cat 1 at most.

Once Wilma actually made that right turn, we began to pay some attention. I had stocked up on water and canned goods earlier in the week. I already had plywood and screws if it came to boarding up. No worries there.

Sunday, October 23rd was beautiful. I sat out by the pool for a couple of hours reading and napping. I was recovering from another rough night at the hands of my favorite bartender Eric “The Destroyer” at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. I snapped on The Weather Channel a couple of times during the day to see what was what. TWC still showed the same path with an anticipated arrival on the east coast sometime Monday afternoon. Ho hum....

I contemplated boarding up my Boynton Beach home. It hardly seemed worth it for a Cat 1 or less. I had my plywood stash from the previous year’s two hurricanes stored in the garage. The problem was, they were buried behind a mountain of stuff. One reason I had put off boarding up was because just getting to the wood would be a bigger job than the actual boarding up.

Finally early Sunday afternoon I decided to go ahead and board up most of the windows. I left the living room windows on the front of the house and all the sliders on the back of the house to do on Monday. I figured I’d have plenty of time Monday morning, if it still looked like we were in danger. Besides, the plywood for the sliders was even more difficult to reach and I didn’t want to bother if I didn’t have to. About 4:30 I headed over to my pal Amy’s for dinner.

In hindsight, I suppose my mistake was getting my Wilma updates from TWC. They were so busy trying to create Wolf Blitzers out of their team of field correspondents, they didn’t really tell enough of the story. All TWC kept showing were correspondents in different locations around Florida with stuff blowing around behind them. Makes for compelling TV, but didn’t provide much in the way of info on what was predicted in specific areas. At Amy’s we tuned into the local weather to discover that the event was going to be a direct hit on Palm Beach County and would begin around 6 AM and last until about 3 PM. What!

As I drove home later that night, I formulated a game plan for Monday. I awoke at 4:30 AM, answered e-mails and fed the cats. By 6:00 I was moving everything into the garage that I hadn’t already moved off the pool deck. By 6:30 the winds were gusting 40 to 45 mph and I was boarding up the last of my glass. I left enough space between the sheets of plywood to allow me to watch the storm. This would be the first big hurricane I’d been through in my 21 years in Florida that didn’t arrive in the middle of the night. I wasn’t going to miss it.

By 10 AM the front hurricane wall was upon us. I have no clue what the wind speeds actually were because my power went out around 8:30. It was, however, an awesome show. At the height of the front-wall winds, I looked out back and saw that the metal roof that covered one end of my screened-in pool area was beginning to sail. The support beam attached to the concrete supporting the roof's center had broken loose from the base. I was more than a little alarmed. I had visions of this roof being torn loose and catapulting over the fence into the neighbor’s house.

All I had and everything I’d worked for was in that house. I had visions of major damage. It was now personal. I ran into the garage grabbed my rain slicker off the hook, my work gloves and safety glasses off the work bench and ran outside. I wrapped my arms around the support and using my body weight, held it down. I suspect the winds at this point were gusting from 80 to 90 mph. I played the part of a human sandbag for about 40 minutes until the front wall began to pass. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

When the eye finally arrived, it was downright eerie. The sun came out and the air was totally calm. I walked the perimeter of my house checking for damage and stacking branches from the neighbor’s fricking Florida pine trees in a secure place. I was relieved to see no real damage so far.

The back wall arrived around 11:30 or noon. If the front wall was awesome, the back wall was absolutely spectacular and ferocious. The gusts were much more severe; but because the wind direction had changed, my pool-deck roof was out of danger. Wilma beat us for two, maybe 21/2 hours more hours. I’ve never seen anything to compare with it. I was sitting in one of my recliners watching the back fence blow violently from side to side like spectators at a football game doing the wave. The neighbor’s roof-mounted solar panel for his water heater blew off and over his roof. Stuff was flying against the front of my house like grapeshot out of a 12-pounder cannon. Unbelievable.

Other than some 15 to 20 mph wind gusts, it was all over by 3:00 PM, and the sun was shinning by 5:00. An inventory of the house found my mailbox M.I.A., the gutter over my front door gone and a ton of debris in the yard; but that was about it. I opened a bottle of The Zin (a precocious red ideal for celebrating the survival of a hurricane), roasted a couple of hot dogs on my grill after rolling it out of the garage and ate dinner on the pool deck. Thankfully a cold front followed Wilma and temperatures took an immediate 15-20 degree drop. The temperature spread was a low of 55 at night and a high in the mid 70s during the afternoons for the next few days while the electricity was off.

Tuesday morning I stayed in bed until the sun started to rise. I made campfire coffee on my grill, bundled up in my bathrobe and watched the sun rise from the pool deck. Life was good. During my cleanup on Tuesday, the neighbor began returning pieces of my mailbox as he came across them in his yard. Eventually I had them all and jerry-rigged them back together. Although I found my front gutter in the backyard, it was a goner.

My neighbor remarked later in the morning that his pile of debris was the biggest on the block and he was going for first prize. Since all the branches and associated pine tree mess, along with all the chunks of shingles from a 20-year-old roof that partially disintegrated during last year’s hurricanes and was never replaced that covered my yard were all from his property, I had a couple of choice thoughts I considered conveying to him. But I didn’t. After all, he did return my mailbox.

Requiring days for the area's electricity to come back on line, such niceties as traffic lights and the coolers in grocery stores were out throughout Palm Beach County. This rendered my daily treks out to what was left of civilization an adventure in navigation and an exercise in patience. The concept of four-way stops is lost on the bulk of the South Florida population.

Finally around 2:30 Thursday morning my power kicked on. It scared the ever-living crap out of my cats (and me for that matter) when the TV began to blare in the middle of the night.

Opening the door and glancing inside, I found my refrigerator filled with beer and wine and nothing else. A few of the grocery stores were operating on generator power, but none had the electric capacity to run cold cases or freezers. The bread aisles were bare, as were the aisles containing just about anything else you’d want to eat. Deviled ham? Anyone?

Like survivors from a plane crash, the residents of South Florida, with glazed stares, wandered around their neighborhoods or took their lives in their hands to venture out in cars.

Of course for some of us, it was time to gather and party on!

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