John Kaminski

August 15 2004

Storm Story

Beyond our best calculations lies a force over which we have no control

By John Kaminski

I live in a mobile home. It leaks. The ants really own it and I just rent it from them.

In many ways it suits a messy bachelor like myself. It's kind of like a little boat, but because it's jammed with so many books and things, I'm tired of bumping into stuff. Maybe someday I'll move into a yurt.

Low maintenance living allows me to spend virtually all my time reading and writing on the Internet. It's such an honor for me to have made so many genuine friends because of that. And I dearly appreciate all those recent inquiries about my well-being that my sudden unscheduled absence from the e-mail circuit has triggered.

Probably the major drawback about living in a mobile home is its fragility, especially in regard to heavy weather. Florida is hurricane country, and I always watch the weather forecasts with a keen interest. The 70-foot-tall pine tree that shelters my lanai with scented boughs and numerous sapling offspring is, in high winds, a potential bomb.

So when the Weather Channel tells me five days in advance that a tropical depression named Charley somewhere down around St. Kitts is on track to arrive in my hometown, I do take notice.

We in South Florida were more than adequately warned that a major disaster could befall us on Friday the 13th. The forecasters were soothsayers, in this instance.

Trouble is, everybody in this neighborhood has been lulled into a false sense of security. Hurricanes never come here. They sometimes fake like they’re going to, but always veer off or vaporize before they actually hit. Many people suspect some kind of geomagnetic magic protects this region from harm.

It was probably this kind of thinking that cost a good many people their lives in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte on this savage Friday the 13th, August 2004.

I’ve experienced numerous hurricanes, as a child in Massachusetts, as a young adult in Texas, and more recently in Florida, with the dreadful Andrew. So they scare me. I know what the power of those winds is like. Like an airplane taking off, when it shifts into second gear, is what.

I packed my car with books, papers, mementos and my computer, and by mid-Thursday evening was ready to roll on out of here, not far, just to higher ground and stronger walls, my sister’s house, just up the road in western Port Charlotte.

I watched the local news station until 1 a.m. (Channel 2 in Fort Myers, excellent weather guys), and noticed that the leading edge of thunderstorms was about a half hour south of Marco Island, more than a hundred miles to the south of me. Time to get some sleep.

A series of loud thunder salvos woke me at 3 a.m. and I bolted upright. Visons of Armageddon danced in my brain. Visions of drowning.

The leading edge was moving fast, but it passed, and a grim calm followed. I obsessed about storm surge as Charley churned closer, and at 4 a.m. called my sister and told her we had about a two-hour window to get the hell out of here and bolt across the state to West Palm Beach.

Then, the TV guys reported the storm had moved a tenth of a degree of longitude to the west, and I calmed down a little. It was a good indication. After packing my computer and the last of my things, I headed to my sister’s at 6 a.m. She was riveted to the TV. We talked it over, decided the storm would pass to the west of us about 60 miles out to sea, and decided to stay.

I slept for three hours. When I awoke, neighbors were chatting, and everyone seemed calm. Tense hours passed with edgy banter. At 2 p.m., as Charley’s eye came careening over Captiva Island (created a new island as it did by cutting the existing island in half), the forecast changed radically. The fairly threatening Category Two storm had been upgraded to a monster Category Four, with winds of 145 mph (on TV tonight they say the killer winds that hit Punta Gorda might have been 155). The fairly threatening storm surge prediction of 7-10 feet had been boosted to 10-15 feet (elevation of my sister’s house is 13 feet, about a mile from the Myakka River, which near its mouth is the western half of Charlotte Harbor; she lives about a mile from the water).

And worse — the new predicted track had it aimed right at us.

I was panicking. Repetitive calculations flitted through my brain like a jukebox gone mad. I had serious visions of being up to my chest in water — in her kitchen! — by 8 p.m. Then my sister came up with a great idea. Her office. It was on the fifth floor in the solidest building in Port Charlotte, a five-story cement behemoth on the main drag, Route 41.

So off we went, armed with peanut butter sandwiches and a weather radio (but not a flashlight) as the storm cycled closer.

For awhile we were content, if nervous. At least we were safe from the storm surge (which never actually happened). But as the day wore on — second by second — we began to realize that even the most rational, well-considered decision ultimately meant nothing when arrayed against the unfathomable and momentous caprice of Nature, which forever moves at her own speed, in her own direction, for reasons no one can ever anticipate.

We knew we were in real trouble when we noticed the pictures hanging on the wall of this formidably solid concrete building swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Looking out the windows we soon tired of the random debris amongst white foam flitting spastically across our field of vision.

The came the giant crunches. Roof blowing off. And the creaks and groans and the building rocking so hard that we had to hang onto something. More slams from the roof, and my sister saying, “We’ve got to go down a floor, in case the whole roof goes.” It was still dry at that point, but when we made our way down the stairwell, water was dripping down the middle all the way from the roof to the ground, the wind whistled like that groaning man in the Munsch painting, and an occasional crunch from above rattled the fillings in my teeth. We hid in a fourth floor men’s room, but only for a few moments, as water seeped through the ceiling, and we heard the distant sounds of heavy crashes.

“Let’s keep heading down,” my sister urged. “We can’t stay here.” I had to agree, and once again we were back in the leaky stairwell, negotiating the treacherous steps. At some point the fire alarm began its incessant blaring as we made it down to the second floor.

My sister was so brave. Hobbled by sciatica, wielding my metal baseball bat as a crutch, she plodded forth through pain in every step and suppressed panic in every step. We made it to the second floor, and thankfully found a family comfortably ensconced in the regional headquarters of a delicatessen chain — Obee’s — and they welcomed us in.

Blissfully, we could barely hear the fire alarm, which filled the rest of the building with the banshee howl of the apocalypse. We kicked back a bit and got on the cellphones to assorted relatives and friends, all of whom were safe in unmolested locations.

Even more blissfully, it was at this point that the winds began to subside. We wouldn’t learn until much later that we were only three miles from where literally dozens of mobile parks, close to the edge of lower Charlotte Harbor, were reduced to rubble by 120-mile-per-hour winds. TV reports said rescuers couldn’t even get in to find the bodies.

With the winds lessening, I chanced a return to the fifth floor to retrieve our gear. My sister had been right. The floor was covered with water and most of the ceiling tiles had fallen. Two of the Obee’s teens helped me cart our stuff back down to our second-floor sanctuary.

As time passed and the winds lessened, I poked my head outside from the ground floor, checked out my sister’s car and saw that an Airborne delivery box had bashed out the back window. The box lay nearby. I tried to move it. It weighed about 300 pounds. Finally with the help of a muscular teenager also seeking shelter in the building, we managed to move it out of the way.

About that time the fire department arrived. I tried to tell them what I knew but they stoically didn’t want to hear it. They had their own procedures. But the lead firefighter ordered me not to go back in the building. Yeah right, with my hobbled sister in there. I snuck around to another door, used her key, and found my way back to her before the fireguys found her in our comfortable sanctuary at Obee’s. We gathered up our stuff and crept down the watery stairwell. Then the firefighters helped us down, and we got the hell out of there.

We speculated that the building would be condemned, for all the swaying it had undergone surely had destroyed its structural integrity. My sister, a Realtor, kvetched about all the real estate records and personal items she would have liked to retrieve from her office, now likely unobtainable if the building were to be condemned.

So we drove through lots of broken glass, shattered tree limbs and downed traffic lights back to her house, which was undamaged but without power. My nephew, who had been safely ensconced with his girlfriend up in North Port, arrived, and we went out and cut some brush that blocked the entrance to my sister’s subdivision.

Finally, he stood guard at my sister’s while I reloaded my car and drove off to check the status of my humble abode. It was a relief to see virtually no damage and only scrambled tree branches in my driveway. The fact that my power was still out was a very minor irritant. Even though I was sweating like a pig with no A/C, I had no trouble falling asleep.

Due to the medical needs of my sister, I wasn’t able to re-hook-up my computer for another 24 hours, and then when I did it took me another four hours to start it. But start it did. And here I am.

Even though Hurricane Charley scared the living feces out of us, our ordeal seems trivial compared to the shocking savagery of nature that cost at least 15 people their lives in circumstances we could totally relate to only a few miles from where we were doing our crazy dance with the elements.

It’s easy to second-guess these kinds of panicky decisions. Stay or go. Fight or flight. But with a hurricane, the right decision can still be wrong, and vice versa.

I am still in a placid kind of shock, as I dash off this diary to reassure my friends that I am safe. Two immediate reflections come to mind.

The first was shared by both me and my sister — but not spoken — while we were stuck on that fifth floor, feeling that building sway back and forth like some amusement park ride from hell. The thought was like we would soon be riding the building down to the ground, just like some towering inferno or — and I say this meaning no disrespect — a World Trade Center tower.

The second was the last look I took out the fifth floor window as we headed toward the stairwell on our journey toward safety — and sanity. What I saw was a kind of ethereal washing machine, a white churning mist, not unlike surf, flecked with fragments of flying rubble, tree limbs, pieces of signs, debris. It was a vision of hell I hope I never see again.

We were lucky. Others, not so far away from us and just as innocent, were not.

Let us now say a little prayer for all those who surely made logistical decisions as well-considered as mine, but who, opposed by the cold impartiality of ever-inscrutable nature, were unable to escape the vicious twist of meteorological fate that will forever be known as Hurricane Charley.

John Kaminski is the author of America's Autopsy Report a collection of his Internet essays seen on hundreds of websites around the world, and also “The Day America Died: Why You Shouldn’t Believe the Official Story of What Happened on September 11, 2001,” a 48-page booklet written for those who insist on believing the government’s version of events. For more information about both, go to http://www.johnkaminski.com/

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