The "No Name Storm"  and then came Charley...


Living in Gibsonton, on the banks of the Alafia river, a person gets "water wise" real quick. Like the afternoon showers, high summer tides, and the occasional Hurricane, tornado, and waterspout. Tampa is the lightning capital of the world. And every year people are killed by it. It can happen on a bright sunny day, as "a bolt out of the blue", or during a fierce storm. The weather is something we can't control, it controls us. We build houses by the water, never taking into consideration, someday, we could lose it all, from what started out, as a Tropical depression in the Caribbean sea. The weather people try to predict the advance of a storm, and what days it may rain, but more times than not, they do what we do. Walk outside and if you get wet, it is raining, if you sweat, it is hot, if you shiver it is cold. About the only thing they can do now, is show you on a chart, when the storms are headed your way, or the way they think they might go. Then up till the last minute, it is a guessing game.


That is what happened back in the early 90's. At that time we had a summer cabin, on a waterfront lot, on the Weeki Wachee river. About 70 miles from the Giant's Camp. When Jeanie bought it in 69' my girls were not much more than babies. That was a place that never changed. We would lock the door and leave, when we came back, everything was like it was left. We had the comforts of home, electric, water, phone, but it was very rustic. A huge fireplace, which was warmth in the winter, and fans for the summer. We would spend every day we could there. Weekends and vacations were lined up, with the Sugar Shack as the destination.


When Mother got older, she didn't go up as much, since it was hard for her to get around there. So my husband at the time, and I, would spend all our free time there. We did not plan to go up for the next weekend, but with a dreary, wet weekend in the future, there wasn't any reason to stay home. We could go to the Shack, and read and relax. It was well after dark when we arrived, and had been raining all day. Just a good light soaking rain. The kind that makes the grass grow. And gives life back to parched plants and trees.


We watched TV till around midnight, to check the weather report. Same as it had been, just steady rain for the next few days. We had 100 foot bald cypress trees in the yard, and wild magnolia, maples and eucalyptus, it was like a canopy of shade over the whole lot. The rain falling on the tin roof, made for good sleeping weather. The next thing I knew, it was 4am when I was awakened by breaking glass. One of the windows at the peak of the roof imploded, and the rain was pouring in. The wind sounded like a train coming right for us. I turned on the TV to see what was going on. Just the Home Shopping Network, trying to sell abalone watches. I will never forget that. Nothing about the weather. Thunder, lightning and wind. I have been in hurricanes before, bad ones, but this was something different. You could hear the trees snapping like match sticks. The lightning was covering the sky. And the wet air, grew cold as ice. By 7am, the tide came over the bank, and started inching closer to the cabin. It was like some kind of surreal dream, that you couldn't wake up from.  The wind would howl through the trees. We had never gotten our suit cases from the car, which now was a good thing. The elderly man next door, was trying to get his washer and dryer up on blocks, and my husband stopped to help him. I was making a call home to see what was happening there, since it was on the water too. Tina and Alex were living in Clearwater, and the bridges where closed down, so there was no way to find out if they were ok. As I stood in the doorway, talking to Mother on the phone, the tide started coming up in the yard fast. In just a couple minutes, it was up over my feet in the kitchen. I hung up the phone, locked the door, and headed for the car. I moved the car up to the road, that was much higher than the yard. Weeki Wachee Gardens is like a big bowl, and our place was right in the bottom of it. The epicenter of the storm. We quickly went to the car, but the delay from helping the neighbor, gave the water time to get up to the road. Now it was knee deep in the cabin. We tried to not splash the water up on the car, as it was salt water, from the gulf three miles away. Still no weather report, even on the car radio. It was 7am when I was on the phone, so it wasn't much later when we left. The water was rushing so fast, through the low part of the road, we had to go out on. The little Festiva car, started to float, so we had to get out through the windows, and hope we could push it, through the current flowing past. By then, we were getting close to the river, and if we went in there, we would be gone. A lady neighbor, driving a big dinosaur of a car, thought she could just go real fast and get out, by passing us. She lost her car, and was swept away, to be caught on a construction crane, that had been working on a big restaurant being built. We grabbed our bags out of the car, and tried to walk out. My husband was 6'5" and over 300 lbs, so he had me give him my bag, and hang onto his belt. The water was rushing so fast, and getting deeper all the time, the sand was going out from under our feet, and it was very hard to keep walking. It was about 150 feet to the high road, which was lined with people, and they just stood and watched, there was no way they would try to help us, as they would be swept away too. We finally made it to the road, and collapsed on the ground. Being the crier that I am, I just lost it when the car floated away, and sank under the water. A school in Spring Hill, the next town, was used as a shelter, and that is where we were taken, by the rescue crew. The wind was at 90 to 110 mph, with gust much higher. I have never been so afraid in my life, and even now, it is still hard for me to watch a show, with water rushing by. Like the rescue shows, as I live it right along with them.


The area where the storm hit, had only one main road in, and one out, about three miles apart. The police set up road blocks, and no one could go back in for two days. And then only with proof, of having a place there. My sister drove from Daytona beach to pick us up, and take us home. It was so cold and we were soaked. All the way, we worried about what we would find when we got home. The water there, was up to the steps of my office, which was the highest I have ever seen it there. We had a camper on a pickup, and my work truck. so we took them both up when we could go back. We were fed by the red cross, and people from the Area club up there. And everyone came together and helped each other. Our little red car was sitting next to a trailer, that had got stuck on a fence, that is all that saved it, from the deep river. The sad part of that was, we  had to pay $1,500 that we still owed on it, since it was a total loss.


I held my breath, as we drove the next few blocks to the cabin. We didn't know if it was even still there. It was!!!  And the yard by the water, was a real mess. The big dock was sitting up in the yard, on top of the sidewalk, and a big tree was blown over. The water line, was chest deep inside the cabin, and looked like a bomb had gone off. The loss was unreal. Antique furniture, destroyed, mementos from the girls, when they were little, were just gone. We lived in the camper for three weeks, trying to salvage what we could. We lost book collections, first editions. So much loss, we never even tried to add it up. And now I was reliving the whole nightmare of the "no name storm". It had a surge of 15 feet, and people had to go on the roofs of their stilt homes, to get away from the water, and wait for the choppers to pick them off, and take them to safety.


And then came Charley...


The thought of having the same thing happen here, was more than I could deal with. I have 58 years of life in this same place. My roots go real deep here, and now I am having an instant replay, of that storm years ago.


The hurricane kept getting bigger, and when the eye formed, and was picking up speed, I knew, we could never think of riding it out here. A numbness set in, and it was like a slow motion movie, I knew Lisa would go to pieces too. So after talking to Tina, we decided I should go to her house in Clearwater. Right in the path of the category 4 storm. That was 45 mph stronger wind, than the no name storm. As Lisa and I got the truck loaded, with old photos, and what canned food we had here, she was getting more upset, and wanted to stay here with her pets. Lisa had brain damage before she was born, and has a mentality of around 12 or 14, when I got her, she was 6 months old, and not a well baby. So this is the only home she has ever had. So I had her crying and not wanting to go, and trying to load the truck, and not really wanting to leave either. But after the storm no one expected, I would not go through that again. Tina's home was built in the 50's and a very well built home. She is a couple miles from the water, so all we would have to deal with is the wind there.


Lisa kept begging to go home, because when Grandma was here, she wouldn't leave. So we get to Tina's late Wednesday and all the traffic was headed to Orlando, and the interstate, and all those roads were grid locked. What they didn't know was they were going right into danger. Alex was home when we got there, and not much after that, Tina's friend and roommate came from work. So they have never been through a bad storm like Tina , Lisa and I have. Alex was going to be the man of the house, and started issuing orders. When Gail got there, she was real scared, and decided she better go spray the orange trees for bugs. Then her and Alex got into a confrontation, with Lisa chiming in that she wanted to go back home. So Tina and I were in for a real bad couple days, locked in a house with three ninnies that were scared out of their gourds. And taking it out on each other. We all deal with stress differently. We were going to lock them all in the bathroom, but decided against that. They would get blood all over the white tile, when they started killing each other. And we would be left with the mess to clean up. Finally Gail went to her room. Alex went to his, and Lisa just kept muttering, about going home. I decided that this was worse than the no name storm, and it wasn't even due to get bad, for another day and a half. We all had TV's on, all over the house. I would go between court TV and the weather. When I would get tired of that, I would put on a movie. Many years ago, we would have hurricane parties. And I think the beer dulled the senses, and everyone was happy. Now we just wait, and watch, and referee the fights.


When the storm started creeping closer and going from a depression, to a category 2, Tina and I started to get worried, but knew we couldn't show any fear, since the other three, were liable to burn the house down, so it wouldn't blow away. That is the state of reasoning they were all in. Gail came back out, and decided to move the furniture in the living room, and in the process, knocked over a very valuable antique lamp, smashing it beyond repair. She kept muttering she wanted to go to Orlando, so Tina told her, go right ahead, get in her little car, with her little bug sprayer, and go to Orlando, and spray their orange trees. Lisa is still muttering about her goat, and cats, and dog. And they were probably scared, cause she wasn't there, and why couldn't I just take her home, and I could go back and be at Tina's. NO... For one thing, the bridges were shut down, and for another, my new truck didn't know how to swim. So she was still trying to find out, if Tina would take her home, and drop her off.


Now the storm was only 300 miles away, and a category 4. Tina and I were assessing, the options the house would have, if the storm hit full force. We have the ability to just deal with things, we have no control over. The other three didn't. So, on the morning of Friday the 13th. There we sat, waiting out our fate. Alex couldn't understand that he had to bring in all the plants, that were in pots in the yard. He had no idea, that since it was still increasing in strength, with a perfectly defined eye, 12 miles across, we may not even come out with our lives. The eye should pass over Clearwater, by 6 pm. It was now about 9am. Lisa was still asking, if we couldn't drop her off before it hit. That girl has a one track mind, and when she gets something on it, she won't let go. Alex asked if he could go to his friends house, and Gail was worrying about a hand full of leaves Alex dropped in the yard while moving all the plants. Tina got that look on her face, that makes me go for a ride, when I see it. There was much banging and yelling so I left and drove around the block till I saw her outside telling me it was over.  She lost her normally cool temper and explained a few things that I didn't even want to know about. All three had teary eyes, but the mouths stopped running. Tina made peanut butter sandwiches for our last supper, which one of the reasons for the trip there, was because, if we were going to die, we wanted to do it as a family. If the three even thought that might happen, Lord only knows what they might do. By now, it was around 2pm. But we had not even had a breeze, and not a drop of rain. The sun was even out. We went about other things, like naps, and TV. And didn't realize, it was around 4pm. It was supposed to start coming ashore about 2:30. Where was it??? The sun was dropping lower on the horizon, and only a slight mist of rain. Dead Calm...


The calm before the storm. We did a lot of praying that day, and at 6:30pm August 13, 2004 We walked outside, and watched the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen. We were shocked to hear, it went ashore south of us, and that kept the water out of my house, and the wind from Tina's. The next morning, the paper and TV had photos of the destruction, in Clearwater, and floods up river from us. Our homes were both spared, as were the ones around us, but the wrath of God, may reach out and grab us, when we are not prepared to face him... So we try to live the best lives we can, and help others, because we know prayers are answered................


2004 Judy Tomaini Rock, All Rights Reserved

Published with the permission of Judy Tomaini Rock


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