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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Way to Go District 9 – And 18

typingmonkeylarge11.jpgI wrote this for the girls I coached this weekend. People seem to like it, so I’m putting it here too. The people involved here are wonderful people. All of them. I thank specifically Gilbert Gutierez, Ana Estrada and Gabby Sanchez. I’m lucky to know you and the girls are lucky to have you.
I want to congratulate the District 9 Big League girls for their third straight trip to the Little League World Series. It is an impressive feat by some good hard-working girls and some excellent coaches.
I also, however, want to congratulate the District 18 girls I had the honor to coach in the Southeast U.S. Regional. These 15 girls are not travel-ballers, not college players and not a 365 day a year team. They are not, like the others, the dozen best selected from a pool of 100.
What they are is what I have heard called “real” Little Leaguers. They love to play softball. When Lehigh Acres Little League and Fort Myers Beach Little League are playing they are on the field. They are good kids and hard workers like their more accomplished (softball-wise) counterparts.
The team Lehigh and The Beach put together to play in the tournament was 10 girls from Lehi and 5 from The Beach. There were no tryouts. Those who wanted to play played. There were no girls sitting at home wishing they could be part of the team. No one was cut.
I have always been proud of the inclusive nature of Beach Little League – my league. We are a teeny tiny league with annually only around 100 players – total – between the ages of 4 and 18.
That puts us in a difficult position when it comes time for Little League’s post-season All Stars. We fielded a 9&10 year-old softball All Star team this season because we luckily had enough girls that age to create a team. They played in the District 18 tournament. They did not win.
I am nonetheless proud of them. I am proud of their hard work and their positive attitudes. I am proud of their coaches, who knew the odds going in. I am proud of the league itself, which invests time and money to get kids on the field and afford them the benefits that team sports provides.
Lehigh Little League, though much larger than The Beach, is the same. It is hard-working volunteers and good kids. It is coaches surrendering huge chunks of work time they can ill afford so that kids who are not their own can have experiences they believe make them better people. It is parents who cart kids to practices and games at the end of long work days, and who surrender huge chunks of their own time. It is board members, district officials and umpires who spend countless hours on the agonizing behind-the-scenes tasks that allow kids and coaches to take the field.
What it is is ‘real’ Little League.
I am rooting for the District 9 girls. They are good kids who work hard and who make consistent sacrifices to be part of something special. And I thank their coaches. They are fine people surrendering huge chunks of their time to make good things happen for kids.
So are ours.
For the record our District 18 girls played four games. They lost them all. That doesn’t make them losers. They are winners. I’m not sure about Lehigh, but I know no other Beach Little League team has ever played in the Southeastern U.S. Regional.
Be proud of them. I am.

Happy Mothers Day

typingmonkeylarge13.jpgHappy Mothers Day

I know someone who’s way more Mom than most. In fact I’m married to her.

Way back in time – long enough ago so I don’t remember specifically when – my Debbie started taking care of kids. Lots of kids. Our friends’ kids. Kids from church. Kids from school. Kids from Little League. Kids.

There’s a cadre of kids – not all of them are kids any more – who have been lucky enough to have spent sizeable percentages of their childhoods in the company of my Debbie. She’s changed more diapers than a maternity nurse and wiped more tears than a mortician.

And it’s not just that she loves kids – which she does. If you have a kid and a job and you see my Debbie with kids you want her taking care of yours when you can’t. Many a parent has worked many a full day confident that their kids were in the very best of hands – my Debbie’s. They were at the library or at the park or at the church or at some other wholesome event she’d somehow found somewhere, but they were with Debbie.

We have four of our own, (one of ‘mine’ who’s always been hers too and three of ‘ours’) so our home has always been full. It’s even more so now, with Debbie nanny-ing for two lucky families and our daughter now carrying on Mom’s tradition. I believe either of Debbie’s current families would be thrilled to build a spare room and have her move in. They can’t have her. We need her here. I need her here.

Thank you Debbie for the full house. Thank you from all of ‘your’ kids over all of the years. Thank you from the many parents who could comfortably drop them and dash off to work. Thank you from the kids who really are yours, who like their father forget to appreciate.

Trashy?

typingmonkeylarge13.jpgI just want everyone to know that I don’t live in a trashy place.

This is despite the ‘reporting’ of a no less reputable news source than the venerable Co-ed.com, which identified Fort Myers Beach – my home – as the Ninth Trashiest Spring Break Destination.

Now I could spend a few words addressing the trustworthiness of the source of this information. After all my first attempt to access this first-class reporting on this critical issue was blocked because the site was identified as pornographic, but I thought addressing the claim might be more my style.

You see the fact that people come into my community to misbehave does not make my community trashy. Families live at Fort Myers Beach. Children are raised here. Good people live their lives here.

I know. I have raised three kids here. We have well-attended churches. We have an elementary school. We have a town-owned rec center with wonderful children’s programs. We have things Spring Breakers seldom see.

It is true that people misbehave here. Folks come here to enjoy our year-round sunshine and first-class beaches. There are bars here. There is a strip club. There is a beach-front hotel that encourages the kind of activity Co-ed.com relies on.

But I want to try to explain something to the people at Co-ed.com.

When you walk your dog in your neighbor’s yard and refuse to clean up after him it’s not because your neighbor’s yard is trashy. It’s because you are.

People come into my community and behave in ways they would never consider behaving in their own community. They flock here from college towns all over the east and the Midwest. They drink to excess and they fornicate with relative strangers. They do drugs and act foolish and sometimes they get arrested. I assume this is the behavior Co-ed.com defines as trashy.

That does not make my community trashy. That makes them trashy.

So when a couple hundred drunks gathers on the beach for a booty-shaking contest, when they swill too much booze and grope strangers and they are here from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and whichever college town has turned them loose that week, it doesn’t mean we’re trashy.

It means they are

Vote for the tall one. Vote for the woman. Vote for the short one. Vote for the one with glasses.

typingmonkeylarge13.jpgBefore I get started let me say that I understand the electorate of southwest Florida as well as anybody. Better maybe.

I get that that group of people – sadly a much too small group – is not the same as We the People of southwest Florida. I get that to win an election you have to know who’s going to vote and target them specifically. The ability to do so – or act like you can – has put real money and political clout in some local pockets.

So vote for the tall one. Vote for the woman. Vote for the short one. Vote for the one with glasses.

Judging by the non-debate I was chump enough to watch on my laptop the other day it doesn’t matter.

You see these candidates – or their ‘people’ – understand the electorate. They know that in a special Republican primary election, held in an off month in an off year, perhaps 50,000 people will actually cast ballots. Maybe. Maybe fewer.

They know that there are four candidates on the ballot, and that all four will get at least a few votes.

So. The person who will be our next representative in Congress could get fewer than 15,000 votes.

Don’t laugh. The next guy’s predecessor Trey Radel won the Republican primary in 2012 with 22,284 votes. A panicked party hierarchy, sensing disaster, did everything it could to keep Radel away from Washington, but a 6-way split in a closed primary spat out the candidate who promised most loudly that he hated the current president more than the rest, that showed himself to be the most intransigent, the most vitriolic. That swore that he would personally slay the Obamacare dragon. In short that he was more the conservative caricature than the rest.

That was in a regularly-scheduled Republican primary. An election with other local seats hanging in the balance. In short an election in which voters could reasonably be expected to participate.

Not so this one. This one is a stand-alone scheduled for April 22.

And let us make no mistake about it. This is southwest Florida. Whoever wins the Republican primary will be our next representative. The last time a non-Republican was elected to a county-wide office in Lee County was 1988. Collier is even more Republican and even more conservative. I have nothing against Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, candidates without party, write-ins or anyone else who wants to make the effort, but here they don’t win.

When Radel inevitably spun in national pundits speaking gleefully about one more Florida political joke loved repeating the fact that Radel won with 62 percent of the vote, implying the people of the district were obvious idiots. Rubes.

In so doing they exposed their complete lack of knowledge of southwest Florida’s political landscape. Radel faced a Democrat and an Independent in November, that’s true, and the Democrat was by far the most qualified candidate.

But he was a Democrat. He was doomed.

So when the tall guy, the woman, the short one and the guy with the glasses take turns saying how much they hate Barack Obama and how quickly they will gut the Affordable Care Act, when they preach to the choir against the evils of entitlements and government overreach while railing against medical marijuana and supporting continuing federal flood insurance subsidies (huh?) it comes as no surprise.

They know what plays. They know what those people who are involved enough, excited enough, motivated enough to go to the polls in a closed Republican primary in a weird month in an off year – the electorate, remember? – want to hear. They know that with the vote split four ways they only need to convince 15,000 or so.

It worked for Trey Radel.

Note: Yes, I do know the names of all four of the candidates. I know a heck of a lot more than that about some of them. Most of it I don’t like.

Stewart Out, Stilwell in as Beach Town Manager

The town of Fort Myers Beach fired Town Manager Terry Stewart on Jan. 15, sending him packing with a benefit package worth just under $120,000.

Moving into the office at town hall will be Don Stilwell, the man who for 16 years headed Lee County government.

Stewart offered his resignation to Mayor Alan Mandel after a contentious Jan. 10 meeting that saw Stewart yell at a Beach resident who has made allegations over the town granting permits for elevated pools and angrily refuse when Councilman Dan Andre later wanted him to apologize.

Stewart said he’d become a lightning rod before he left his last job in Cape Coral, and Cape staffers had been negatively affected. With a council election looming and the elevated pools issue hot he said he didn’t want the same thing happening again.

With Councilman Bob Raymond out of town Mandel called an emergency meeting Jan. 15, where he asked for a motion to terminate Stewart’s contract cause without according to Section 6.02 of the town charter. The council quickly voted 4-0 to approve, leaving most of the 50 or-so in attendance scratching their heads.

Section 6.02 of the charter outlines procedure for termination without cause, granting the departing manager six months severance. Had Stewart resigned or had the council terminated with cause he would have walked away without severance.

The walk-away package started with six months salary or $60,000. State law caps severance at 20 weeks, but the agreement gave Stewart the equivalent of six weeks more. Stewart’s owed more than $52,000 for vacation and unused sick time, and the town will write a $6,300 check to the state for Stewart’s pension.

Attorney David Potter said the extra six weeks pay was for a broader claims release Stewart agreed to.

Raymond was back for the Jan. 21 council meeting, and he was not happy. He said he didn’t want to lose Stewart, but he would have never voted to give Stewart a severance package and Stewart knew it. He said the emergency meeting happened too quickly.

“By doing it real quick you got rid of the one negative vote,” Raymond said. “You all knew I would vote against it.”

Raymond was upset Stewart will receive severance, and pointed out the check Beach taxpayers will write is well above the six months salary that was cited.

“That’s taxpayer money thrown to the wind,” he said. “You don’t run away from your problems and basically Terry ran away from his responsibility.”

Mandel insisted the meeting was not rushed to take place while Raymond was away. Councilman Joe Kosinski said he hopes Raymond wasn’t implying the other council members ‘railroaded’ it through.

But Raymond said if Stewart wanted to leave he should have walked away without severance.

“You don’t pay someone to leave and give them money just because they want it,” he said. “It’s not our money to throw away, and we just threw it out the window.”

Raymond voted against the separation agreement, losing 4-1.

Stilwell was on a list of four candidates for the interim job, which council members said they expect to last six months or less. A candidate for Lee County commission in District 4, Stilwell told council members he’d withdraw.

The other candidates were former Sanibel and Bonita Springs manager Gary Price, former Beach manager Jack Green and current Beach fiscal manager Evelyn Wicks.

The deciding vote was 3 for Stilwell and 2 for Price. The council took a second vote, up or down on Stilwell, to make it unanimous.

Stilwell does come with baggage. He was fired in 2010 after 16 years at the county when an FBI probe turned up lurid images on his county-owned computer. Council members said Stilwell got high praise from county officials, however, and Mandel read from a glowing endorsement Stilwell got from the Fort Myers NewsPress when he ran unsuccessfully for county commission in 2012.

Council said Stilwell was the right man to keep projects like Estero Boulevard improvements and a major potable water project on track.

Stilwell started work Monday Jan. 27. He’ll get the same $10,000 a month Stewart was getting. He said it’s a month-by-month open-ended contract.

“I think it’s wise, because it doesn’t bind another council,” Stilwell said.

Two council members, Raymond and Jo List, are termed out in March.

“I worked with the Beach for 16 years as county manager,” said Stilwell, who lives in Fort Myers. “It’s a special place. It’s where I take people when they come to town.”

Stilwell said he believes he’ll be a good fit, and he would be interested in keeping the job full-time.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Radel’s Party Wants Him Gone

TypingMonkeyLarge[1]The Lee County, Collier County and Florida Republican Party are all asking Trey Radel to resign.

The man national news outlets are calling Florida’s Cocaine Congressman bought an 8-ball (3.5 grams) of cocaine from an undercover cop outside a Washington, D.C. restaurant on October 29. He entered a plea agreement to a misdemeanor possession charge Nov. 20.

Radel has entered rehab in Naples, and has said he intends to keep his seat. His party in the two counties his District 19 represents and at the state level want him gone.

In a statement Terry Miller, chairman of the GOP executive committee in Radel’s home Lee County, said his prayers and best wishes are with Radel and his family.

Miller said the decision rests with Radel, but urged him to resign immediately and said if he does choose to stay in office and seek another term the party will not back him.

“His actions clearly disqualify the pursuit of another term and if he should run for re-election he would not enjoy our support.”

Radel has not answered questions about the frequency of his cocaine use, though official reports say he had bought the drug “several times” from a dealer turned informant. Local prosecutors said he was “routinely using and buying cocaine.”

Radel also told authorities he sometimes shared cocaine with friends, and could have been charged with distribution.

Calls for Radel’s resignation have come from all corners. So far he appears to be digging in, having hired a crisis management public relations firm. He even attended a pricey fundraiser is Naples two days after he was charged.