Category: Stuff I Saw

Charley – Ten Years Later

typingmonkeylarge11.jpgOn the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Charley I’ve been asked what I remember. This is it.

I remember touring The Beach with Captain Kerry Greiner immediately after the storm. I remember bumping over sandbars crossing Estero Boulevard in his sheriff’s office SUV. I remember the ‘century tree’ that snapped, and the top sticking straight up out of a roof down in the 6000 block. I remember the Reef – and I miss it.

I remember coming home to find a 9-foot metal 2-by-2 javelined through the side of my house. Nine feet off the ground, hurled by the storm through the ¾-inch sheeting and the half-inch drywall and sticking 18 inches into what was then my office.

Out back my seagrape tree had been blown over and was laying on my back porch. There are two great stories about that tree.

I remember my friends not being allowed to return to their homes. I remember people who fled at the last minute, thinking to ride out the storm and return to clean up, finding armed guards forbidding them from crossing Matanzas Pass Bridge. I remember days later a parent, a PTA member, tazered at the foot of the bridge.

It was not renegade cops. It was not a crazy out-of-control man acting unreasonably. It was people thrust into an untenable situation.

My friend was one of those people who fled before the storm at the last minute. Hurricane Charley was a killing monster – lest we forget. Many of us thought to ride it out but turned tail at the last minute when the storm intensified and made a hard right turn – right at us.

Myself I herded two of the neighborhood hardcores into the mini-van and headed inland. I had hidden Debbie, Allison, Rachel and Michael away in the hotel at Summerlin Square – far enough inland to escape flooding but close enough to return if we dodged the bullet. Jeffrey and Don and I wedged ourselves into the minivan (packed already with valuables we had decided were safer there) and made it to the hotel.

I don’t recall how long we stayed at the hotel – huddled with other refugees watching trees lay down and improbably flying items soaring by. It was surreal.

I remember driving back after the worst has passed. I remember a line of power poles snapped off along San Carlos Boulevard. I drove slowly, dodging the worst of the debris in the road and plowing through floodwaters (I was in my old 1993 Volvo 960 – a veritable tank) until we reached San Carlos Island.

San Carlos Island is between the mainland and Estero Island. Most of southwest Florida knows where Estero Island. Few know San Carlos Island.

As you drive to Fort Myers Beach, and most everyone has, you drive over San Carlos Island. It’s in between the bridges – duh.

The water was getting steadily deeper, and I recall driving into the Goodwill parking lot to find high ground.

Don and I tried to drive home, but Main Street was underwater. I got as close as I could and decided better. Don went for it and I watched him wade waist-deep down Main Street.

Of course by the time I returned to the hotel I had a flat tire. Try as I might I couldn’t avoid all the debris strewn on the roads.

I returned a few hours later. There was a roadblock in front of Johny Leverock’s – what’s now Pinchers Crab Shack. That’s where Kerry and I loaded up and went for our tour of the beat-up Beach.

I went back to the hotel that night. The next morning I went back. I went by my house first, finding very little I could do. So I drove down to the bridge. There was of course already a crowd.

I had a Press plate on my car and a Press I.D. in my wallet. Then I had a deputy at my window.

“You wanna go over and do your job?” he asked.

Yes, I did.

And then I was driving over the bridge. Past armed guards.

It’s hard to explain how it feels to drive down a road you know well and see soldiers – young men mostly – kids really – carrying rifles walking down the street.

Those streets were deserted – almost. Hundreds stayed on Estero Island and rode the storm out. I never heard an estimate of how many. I remember emergency managers – Town Manager Marsha Segal-George on the local front, the fire chief, the sheriff – struggling over whether to feed the island refugees or not. The thinking?

We don’t want people on the island. If we feed them they can stay. It was decided they should be fed, and I remember people lined up for food at the Beach Theatre.

I remember going to meetings at Town Hall. Meetings where they discussed conditions on the island.

Part of the problem was that a lot of people don’t understand a lot of things. Sewers and plumbing is one such thing – or is it two?

The people running the town – or at least the people running the sewer system – knew it wasn’t working. Water (and sewage) still flowed downhill, but pumps do not pump without electricity.

“They’re lying!” is an accusation I heard repeatedly. “I flush my toilet and it works just fine.”

Of course lots of those same people were carrying buckets from the canal or the bay and using them to flush. Gravity being what it is the toilet would in fact empty when water was dumped in.

With pumps not running, however, what was flushed simply sought the lowest level. That liquid bubbling up in yards and in roads was not water.

I remember stopping at a good friend’s house on San Carlos Island. It was a sort of home base for those who could not go home. People could get there, but not over the bridge. Many of them asked me to check on their homes while I was on the island. I did. What else could I do?

I remember people who had lost much losing more because they could not go home to clean up the damage and salvage what could be saved.

I remember hearing about Coast Guard boats patrolling Estero Bay and turning back boaters trying to make it to the island. I remember friends who swam the pass to get home.

I remember parasites in pick-up trucks patrolling the streets and ‘helping’ by picking up recyclable metal and hauling it off to sell. I remember residents running them off – sometimes none too gently.

I remember the old land-line phones came back on way before the cell phones started working again. It’s why I still have a land line and an old-fashioned phone in a closet.

I remember heat. It was mid-August. Turn off your power for the next week and see how you like it.

I remember what locals called ‘The FEMA X’, marked on structures ruled by someone (maybe not FEMA) to be uninhabitable. I remember the fear people had when they found their home or their business so marked.

I think what I remember most might be a speech I heard a resident give at a Beach town council meeting several days after people were allowed to return home. I don’t remember who gave it.

I do remember is believing he was speaking for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of others. This man was beyond outraged. He was beyond offended. He was talking about having tried to cross the Matanzas Pass Bridge only to find armed guards blocking his way.

“I am a free man,” was the gist of it. “I have the right to come and go to and from my home. You are my government. I do not cede to you the right to forbid me go to my home.”

There was more. I don’t remember the words specifically, but the feeling stuck with me.

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Hanging Chads

TypingMonkeyLarge[1]I was talking to Lee County Elections Supervisor Sharon Harrington this week. Naturally one of the things we talked about was all the trouble Florida and our county had with the 2012 election. The huge lines, lack of voting machines, closed polling places and the entirety of the mess spawned efforts to have her recalled – or boiled in oil – I forget which.

I was a candidate then, but am pretty sure the mess didn’t cost me the election, which I lost by a scant 60,000 votes or so.

Anyway the conversation put me in mind of another election that made national news.

That was the year 2000, when Al Gore won Florida. Or was it George Bush? Well first it was one, then it was the other. Then Florida was a national punchline.

I was working as a daily reporter in Fort Myers at the time and when Election Day was over and the smoke didn’t clear I became part of The Recount.

Now we were under a national spotlight – at least in Florida if not here in Lee County. So we all show up. There was me, a representative of each party, another reporter and enough suits for a deck of cards – or two decks.

The scene was bizarre. We sat at long tables. Someone from the Elections Office would bring out a small box full of ballots. She (it was Sharon, an employee then, part of the time) sat on one side of the table with me on the other. She would hold up the punch-card ballot so I could see it. I was of course not permitted to touch the ballot.

So as Sharon held the ballot up I, with my extensive training and experience, was asked to ‘determine the voter’s intent.’
Was the fact that a ‘chad’ was hanging but still attached mean that that was the intended punch? When there were two holes which one did the voter intend to punch and which was the accident? And what in the name of God was a pregnant chad?

And perhaps more importantly why, whenever the last ballot came out of a box, were there a bunch of chads left in the box?

We sat there for hours, them holding the ballots up and me employing my vast expertise to divine the intent of the voter and dutifully writing it down.

If I recollect accurately Gore gained a few votes in the Lee County recount. It didn’t matter. The Supreme Court stopped the whole thing a few days later and the whole process became moot. Bush still won the county big. Republicans won every election in this county back then. Still do.

I still have some of those chads that came out of those boxes. They’re in a little plastic container in my desk.

Some months later when the state went through a spasm and required all new and different election equipment I ended up with ‘my’ ballot box, too. The Elections Office was selling the old metal locking ballot boxes and the spindly-legged voting tables and anything else someone might buy to commemorate the massive electoral shitstorm. I went to the warehouse to write a story as hundreds lined up to purchase a piece of history.

As I was talking to someone I glanced over and there on the pile for sale was the ballot box from Precinct 22. My precinct. The actual box I’d dropped my own ballot into since I’d moved here in 1986.

So I bought it. I don’t remember what I paid. Five bucks? Ten?
Anyway it’s a file cabinet now.