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Monday, October 29, 2012

Literally living with hurricanes

When I moved from the safe haven of my hometown of Toms River, N.J. to the unfamiliar tropical climes of Key West, Fla., in August 1999, there were a number of changes I needed to make in my life.

I appreciated warm weather more. And I also appreciated the wearing of Hawaiian shirts ... a lot actually. Made for a very easy wardrobe in the Southernmost City. I also had to deal with the lifestyle that included the fact, according to Randy, one of our pressmen, there were "240 places to purchase alcohol" on the 3x5 island. What kept me from being a full-blown alcoholic still amazes me to this day.

It was all pretty laid back, too. Well, almost every part of living the Keys life was.

There was this thing called hurricane season that every now and then kept you on your toes. And when there was some disturbance in the Caribbean, you suddenly became a Weather Channel follower. The first thing you wanted to know was what direction the possible storm was heading in and was it going to be a tropical storm or a category 1 hurricane or something worse. These, I came to find out, were issues.

It was in Key West I truly got schooled on the fine art of hurricanes. I learned about the severity of these storms. I learned about how easy it was for the power to go off in this part of the country. And I learned that if the storm was severe, you had two options -- get in your car and make a bee-line on the Overseas Highway (US-1) to get to the mainland or stick it out and hope that you aren't blown from one end of the island over to the other, riding some wave down Simonton.

Living in New Jersey all my life, the hurricanes I grew up remembering were pretty darn tame -- there was Hurricane Belle in 1976 when I was 9 years old. There was Gloria in 1985 and Hugo in 1989. Oh, there was a bunch of Nor'easters as well in the '90s, but that was pretty much it. How to handle a hurricane coming at 100 mph? Yeah, I had no clue whatsoever.

So in the Keys, I had to learn the urgency of what a hurricane was like and the damage it could do. Over the first couple of months in my new residence on Stock Island, across the way from Key West, I did a bit of reading on hurricane season in the Keys. The "big one" in terms of hurricanes was in 1935 -- the Labor Day hurricane -- that killed hundreds of people and forever knocked out the Florida East Coast Railway. That, legend says, was a Category 5 hurricane, which pretty much doomed you if you had very little warning, which the residents had none of in 1935.

Hurricanes in the Keys are as much a business as, say, fishing, tourism and the Key West High baseball team.

Almost two months into my living in the Keys, I get a phone call from my mom. She's telling me she and my dad are coming down to Florida to visit relatives and they are going to be coming down to the Keys on October 14, a Thursday. Well, of course, I was going to be happy to see my folks.

So I knew they would be coming. Well, wouldn't you know it, there's a storm brewing out in the Caribbean. And this one is pretty darned serious. They were about to make this one into a hurricane by the beginning of the week. And on that Tuesday, October 12, 1999, Hurricane Irene became a reality.

Goody, goody gumdrops. This storm had formed somewhere south of Cuba and put the lower Keys into its path. The warm Caribbean water was a perfect breeding area for Irene and once she sliced through Cuba and got back into the water, she could have gone any way she wanted to. Either way, she was going to be doing some kind of damage.

Now what kept a lot of the lower and middle Keys folks on edge was that the year before, they were terrorized by Hurricane Georges, which had done an amazing amount of damage between Big Pine Key and Key West. That memory was still fresh in the natives' heads.

We knew what we all had to do at the Key West Citizen -- our goal was to get done as soon as we could before the storm started kicking up. Well an early deadline for a sports editor is trying enough. How about also worrying about your folks who are driving into a hurricane situation. At one point, this was a category 2 hurricane with average speeds of 110 mph.

What a nice way to introduce your parents to your new home!

So on Thursday, October 14, I reported in earlier than normal at work and set up my day so we would get done as soon as possible. We did, and just as we finished up with the paper and gave it off to the press room, the lights flickered on and off and those in charge of the building had already closed up the emergency shutters over the windows. There was no television, so I had to listen to Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees on a crackling, fading AM radio station in my car, listening to the Yankees come back for a 3-2 win.

There were no lights and practically most of Key West was dark by now. During the day, I had communicated with my folks, who arrived in Key West early in the afternoon before the hurricane problems arrived. My dad, who worked for Days Inn at the time, had a voucher to stay there and all was cool except one thing -- if the hotel had flooded or something happened, they could not guarantee or compensate for anything that was lost. So my parents basically said, "Thanks, but no thanks." They found the Hampton Inn on Roosevelt Boulevard (US-1) and parked underneath a garage that was protected from the storm.

When I got done, I had driven over from Northside to the Hampton Inn, being aware that there were no lights on at this particular time, but I knew what room they were staying in. So I knocked on the door in this driving rainstorm and windy conditions and my mom answers the door.

Yes, my first meeting with my parents in nearly two months since the move was with flashlights on in a dark hotel room. I kid you not.

"Well, mom, dad ... how do you like Key West so far?" I jokingly asked as you can hear the wind and rain on the other side of the door in the background. So we caught up for a good half an hour, but I felt much safer being in the hotel room than at my cottage that I had been staying in at Stock Island. Still, I needed to pick up some stuff before I headed back to the hotel.

So back south on US-1 I went, over the bridge leading in and out of Key West into Stock Island with absolutely no traffic lights to guide me. Good thing there weren't many other people on the road at this particular hour.

I made it to my place on Maloney Avenue and somehow managed to find what it was I needed to get me through the night. By now, the rain had subsided a bit, but the wind was still prevalent. And with the flashlight, I beamed it down to the bedroom floor and saw a portion of the rug soaked from the rain that was seeping onto it underneath the door that was not fully protected with the rubberized bottom.

Honestly, I was more concerned about having a place to be at the next day than the silly rug. With the hopes I'd have a cottage to return to, I grabbed what I needed and trudged back into Key West and back to the Hampton Inn. My folks slept in a queen size bed together, while I slept in the other queen for the night.

Though I can hear the wind in the background, it surprisingly didn't keep me up. I was pretty tired anyway. When I woke up at about 8:30 the next morning, it was as if the calm had settled in. The power had been fixed and we were watching the Weather Channel in the room to see where the storm went off to. Overnight, the storm had taken a northeastern turn instead of coming northwest and threatening the lower Keys like Georges did. It spared us more damage than it could have pummeled us with. The hurricane went over the middle Keys quickly, then began to weaken across southeastern Florida until it dumped out back into the ocean in Vero Beach.

I went back to my cottage after 10 because I had some cleaning to do if there was damage. I got back and other than a soaked carpet on the bedroom floor, there was nothing else. The place survived. I told Kathy, who was a manager's helper for the cottage complex, about the carpet and she said she'd take good care of it, which she had a person with a vacuum come in to suck the water and moisture out of the rug when I'd come back later on in the evening.

The hurricane shutters were still on the Citizen building when I got there just before noon. The power was back on and I was back in business to prepare for our Sunday paper since we didn't print on Saturdays. Friday night football was taken care of at the time by a group of writers, including my assistant who loved to cover Key West High. So that was his basic job. All was set. Business as usual again.

My folks had gone out but didn't venture far. They went across US-1 to the Winn-Dixie supermarket to pick up some stuff. Other than my mom taking pictures of all there was, they didn't go far. So about 3:45 p.m., I get back to the hotel and they want to see Key West ... more importantly, they want to see the Old Town section.

I was pretty hesitant about it. We were going to go in my Ford Thunderbird LX and honestly, I didn't know what kind of damage was done to that side of the city. But we jumped into my car and drove off on Roosevelt until it turned into Truman. And when we got to Duval Street, there were people on the sidewalks, but no one was in the streets -- Duval practically flooded. I came to find out that when Key West has a bad storm, usually the open ends of Duval where the Gulf of Mexico is at one end and the Straits of Florida is at the other fill up and make driving kind of interesting. The three of us were just looking for a place to eat in the famous seafood restaurant section of town.

You'd think in a town as tough as Key West that business owners would fend this storm off and open up to the public.

Nope! Not at all. We drove around the flooded streets of the Old Town. Nothing. As a matter of fact, we found it hard to eat anywhere. And I know my folks were set on having seafood in a seafood-famous town like Key West. So back to the Newtown section. We came across one restaurant not far from the hotel for all of us to eat. It was a nice little place called Perry's. I had not been there yet, but my folks were willing to try it so we ate there.

Perry's was a nice little place it turned out. This was the restaurant that I tried mahi-mahi for the first time (dolphin, not Flipper dolphin). We had a good time and then that night, we hung out at the hotel. My mom went off to do laundry that was needed to get done, while my dad and I stayed in the hotel room and watched Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Braves, a game won by the Braves, 1-0, to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. When the game ended after 11, I said goodbye to them for that time (I was meeting them after work Saturday night in Key Largo to spend Sunday with them and my girlfriend, who was still living in Palm Beach Gardens, on a glass-bottom tour boat) and headed back to my cottage to sleep in my bed for the night.

The next morning, mom and dad stopped at my cottage to see where I lived and I gave them 10-second grand tour of the place (a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and the bedroom). The place overlooked the water that led out to the Straits of Florida. It was very scenic. For my first "home," it was very nice. I ended up living there for 11 months until my girlfriend, who moved down to be with me a month later, and I moved to West Isle Apartments on Duck Avenue in July 2000.

Needless to say, there would be no more hurricane threats during the 1999 season.

But that didn't mean my association with hurricanes in the Keys was over by a longshot.

It's now November 4, 2001. It's a Sunday and I am excited about this day -- it is Game 7 of the World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. But it's a cautious day -- Hurricane Michelle had started as a wave off of Nicaragua and headed through the still-warm Gulf of Mexico and sliced through Cuba, just like Irene had done two years earlier. The day before, the World Powerboat Championships that were to be held in Key West were canceled to end the season. This storm meant business.

And so by the time I came into work around 2 p.m., it was fairly obvious our publisher, John Kent Cooke III, had one thing in mind -- get the paper out by 6 p.m. I knew on a pro football Sunday we wanted to make sure we got at least the 1 p.m. games in, which included the Dolphins, who were playing the Carolina Panthers in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium. But the Buccaneers had a 4 p.m. start and were playing in Green Bay. I lobbied to try and push the deadline to 7 p.m. to get the 4 p.m. games in, figuring the grandson of the former owner of the Washington Redskins might have it in his heart to wait another hour.

All I got in return was a definitive "no" and a snide remark. I came to find out the grandson wasn't exactly the sports fan his grandfather was. So we went through with what we had. My assistant had taken the weekend off (the executive sports editor had given her the weekend off without ever telling me what was happening) so it was up to me to get my three-page section done, which I did just after 6 p.m.

And when the night was finished, I had gone over to Albertson's supermarket. It had opened up a few months earlier and I actually preferred going there instead of Publix and Winn-Dixie at the time. I wanted to pick up some odds and ends and the essentials like bread and water were practically gone! You'd thought Armageddon was about to take place. I gathered what I could get in bread and water and some cold cuts and I was off to my apartment which I lived in by myself, the relationship between my girlfriend and I splintered just seven months earlier.

I sat in my bedroom and watched Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with the wind kicking up, wondering what the heck was going to happen. At any moment, Michelle, which was a Cat-4 hurricane that blew into Cuba at 140 mph, could make a left turn and head toward Key West. I had prepared myself for "the blackout" to happen.

I had literally turned out all the lights in my apartment and the only light that was on by now was the TV. Miaculously, I still had cable television. So in this battle royale between Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens, I may never have seen the amazing end of the 2001 World Series. By the top of the eighth inning, I went outside to see what was happening.

It was eerily quiet. Whatever wind was left was very, very light. I knew we were out of the woods.

I got to see the Yankees take a 2-1 lead on the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning of the World Series on Rafael Soriano's solo home run. And just as I was resolved to swallow pride again and watch another Yankees World Championship take place with Mariano Rivera on the Bank One Ballpark mound to protect the lead, the Diamondbacks put together a rally for the ages.

And when Luis Gonzalez's flair into short left field with the infield in fell softly to the ground and Jay Bell scored the winning run, I was surprised they couldn't hear me all the way up and down Duck Avenue. The big, bad Yankees had been dethroned as World Series champions by a 3-2 count.

By Monday morning, November 5, the world that I became familiar with called Key West was back to normal. There was some damage caused by the wind, but minimal. And nothing happened to me or my belongings. Michelle decided to go away from the Keys and keep churning through the Straits of Florida toward the Atlantic Ocean and out of harm's way.

The next time I would go through another hurricane would be 2004. Though not direct-hit like hurricanes, my new girlfriend and I dealt indirectly with both Frances and Jeanne in a three-week period in September 2004. A ton of rain, quite a bit of wind ... you know the normal things you see during a hurricane. But everything stayed up and we made it through.

Now I know just about everything I need to in case a "disturbance" makes its presence felt.

My time in the Keys was more than an education to prepare me for when one took place, that's for sure.

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