Tales of calamity: Kimberly Miller’s hurricane collection


Meet The Palm Beach Post’s weather reporter, Kimberly Miller, with a sample of her work during big hurricanes.

AS HURRICANE CHARLEY ROARS, CALM TURNS INTO DESPERATION

We had less than 30 minutes to make a potentially life-or-death decision. It seemed like 30 seconds, and for a few terrifying moments we thought we had chosen wrong.

In no time, Hurricane Charley’s screeching winds ramped up from a Category 2 to a 3, and then to what few predicted, expected or prepared for - a devastating Category 4, with winds swirling up to 145 mph.

Palm Beach Post photographer Gary Coronado and I had driven to Fort Myers Beach to talk to those who had defied a mandatory evacuation order of Lee County’s barrier islands.

The plan was to do a few interviews before heading back to the mainland over the high, arching Estero Bay Bridge. We wanted to stay until the last minute to soak up as much of Charley as possible without actually getting stuck in it.

That was the plan, anyway.

Through the next 12 hours on the island, I cried only once.

At first, the island was remarkably peaceful. Most people on the beach and by the pier were joking, and nearly all of them were drinking beer - even at 9 a.m. - and I thought, “Man, if this thing hits hard, there’s going to be a whole lot of drunk people trying to deal with it.”

Actually, I wasn’t scared. After being psyched out by years of shrill, unrequited hurricane warnings, I had adopted the “it’s not coming here” attitude.

We wandered into the Lani Kai Hotel, looking for a place to transmit our stories and pictures to The Post.

But after the hotel owner boasted of how his 25-year-old structure could withstand 125 mph winds, we started to feel pretty safe and started thinking we might just stay on the island.

By the time TV news reported that Charley was a Category 4 and headed straight for Lee County, the Lani Kai owner became a little more concerned. He said we should leave “now, for your own safety.” I got the impression he really, really didn’t want us to die in his hotel.

With nowhere to stay, we decided then to leave.

But then we spotted a couple hauling two pet carriers down the street and leaning into a wind blowing hard enough to take a grown man off his feet.

I pulled over for Gary to get the shot. It was pouring. The couple were struggling in the wind when one of the pet carriers fell apart and all of their stuff started blowing down the street.

Instinctively, we decided to help the couple chase after their belongings. I pulled the truck up and started frantically throwing stuff out of our back seat so they could jump in. We dropped them down the street at a friend’s house.

It was at that point, I think, that Gary and I realized it was too late too leave. We had missed our window of opportunity to get over the bridge safely.

Now I was scared.

I spun the truck around, and we headed for the DiamondHead resort - a newer hotel that had cars in its parking lot. A sign of life.

We ran around the hotel with winds gusting and desperately pulled on the doors. I don’t remember thinking much at the time, except maybe that if we couldn’t get into this hotel, I would go back to the nearby house and ask for help.

Finally, a door to a stairwell gave, and on the second floor, thankfully, we found about 60 people hunkered in the hotel’s ballroom. We could stay, the manager said, if we signed a waiver saying we wouldn’t blame the hotel if we were hurt.

For the next few hours, as the storm battered the island, we watched from hurricane-proof windows the destruction outside.

Wind whistled shrilly up the elevator shaft. One little girl kept saying, “I can’t stand that noise, I can’t stand that noise.”

We ventured out once, but the wind was blowing the rain so hard it stung our faces. Around the pool area, the concrete pavers were being washed away by the waves and the pool water was almost indistinguishable from the Gulf.

It was hard to walk, so I ducked behind a concrete wall to avoid flying away. Power lines were dangling like Christmas-tree tinsel. We headed back inside.

But not before seeing something incongruous - a man in shorts and a tank top meandering down the street in the painful rain. How was he standing up? Was he drunk? We didn’t stick around to find out.

At about 6:30 p.m., Charley was far enough away that we could go out safely. We stepped out into a smoke-filled sky and ran to a house engulfed in flames with mini-explosions going off inside. Debris was everywhere. People, mostly in flip-flops and shorts, were surveying the damage.

The storm left full-sized sofa beds, green trash Dumpsters and dishwashers in the middle of Estero Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Fort Myers Beach.

At least one house was leveled. Part of a roof lay in the sand. Jet skis landed oddly in front of storefronts, trees were uprooted and stop signs were pulled out of their concrete anchors.

Probably the saddest disaster was the raging fire. It had started in an evacuated house but left neighbors Michael and Cheryl Prathers shivering in the rain, afraid their own home would go up in flames. Flames from the burning house lapped at their roof.

They knew no help was coming.

The fire department had evacuated at 1 p.m., and the fire raged for an hour before the firetrucks finally ventured back on the island.

“I actually thought it was safe now,” Michael Prathers said, sitting on the curb across from his small home. “Do you know if there are any firetrucks left?”

Other residents described “a wall of water” that hit when Charley pushed the shallow Gulf waters ashore.

“I’ll never stay again,” said a man who calls himself Red Man. “It was too scary.”

Many residents said they weren’t expecting a Category 4 and may not have stayed if they had known sooner.

We turned down one street and into the path of a truck surrounded by people walking alongside it. I backed out of its way and we saw why they were all walking with the truck.

A large manatee had been washed out of the bay, and people had it rolled onto a makeshift wooden stretcher towed behind the truck. But the stretcher was so waterlogged and rotten it kept snapping and the manatee would fall to the street with a thud.

People were chanting “Charley, Charley,” the name they had given the manatee, and screaming at each other.

That’s when I turned around and finally cried. I don’t know whether it was the sight of the helpless manatee or just a release of the stress of the day, but it didn’t last long.

I took out my notebook again. Gary snapped more photos.

We learned later that Charley - the manatee, not the storm - made it back into the bay safely and swam away.

HURRICANE KATRINA: GARDENER BRINGS ORDER TO RELIEF EFFORT

Scott Lewis rolled into this decimated Gulf Coast town one week ago as a gardener for Palm Beach’s rich and famous. By Friday, folks here were calling him commander.

Some did so grudgingly. National Guard officers weren’t sure they should take orders from a hammy civilian in a white polo shirt and khakis. Other paid recovery employees tried to get the 6-foot-2-inch West Palm Beach resident and founder of Eagles’ Wings Foundation Disaster Relief tossed out as leader of a 1,400-strong volunteer program that he talked his way into following Hurricane Katrina.

Call it a clash of egos. Who will be king of the recovery?

But when you’re in a town where there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the damage and no storm cliche does justice to the destruction, rules and protocol are as fluid as the gulf waters that stole beachfront mansions Aug. 29.

It’s one thing when fragile trailer homes are blown to bits. It’s another when entire brick-and-mortar neighborhoods are nothing but front porch steps that dead-end in midair - the only thing remaining from a huge storm surge that left a 41-foot-tall watermark on a tree 1 mile inland.

“All the bureaucracies and boundaries are thrown out,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard. “The formality goes away, and you just roll up your sleeves and roll with the punches.”

And listen to Scott Lewis.

“Please be as patient with me as you can with me being an ass,” Lewis told volunteers during an early morning staff meeting. “I do have a style and it’s rough, but it gets things done.”

Locals help Guardsmen reach victims

Lewis, a former volunteer firefighter with 25 years of emergency management training, earned the nickname “Slick” before he was even in town a full day.

He showed up four days after Katrina and knocked on the door of the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center. Officials, dealing with their own tragedies from the storm, were immersed in what they now describe as “controlled chaos.”

No one had asked Lewis to come. They made him wait a half-hour.

But after hearing an oral resume, including Lewis’ 1999 experience helping with Hurricane Floyd in the Bahamas, Chancery Clerk John McAdams made him the leader of the Harrison County volunteer program.

Now he needed an office. Lewis headed to school district headquarters and walked into a meeting with the superintendent and a handful of principals. He talked his way into the Harrison County High School off Highway 49, then went to the National Guard staging area.

“I said, ‘I want to talk to someone big,’ ” Lewis said. “Ten minutes later, we were with the battalion commander.”

By the end of last Saturday, he had a commitment for 800 troops at his command post to work with volunteers searching for pockets of Harrison County residents not yet reached by aid.

He calls the program “pathfinder” - a way for locals to help Guardsmen who don’t know the area reach the most isolated or off-the-map residences. Lewis boasts it’s the first time that civilians have partnered with military so closely, including taking direction from them. Goheen couldn’t prove him wrong.

“That environment down there has forced people to get very ingenious,” Goheen said.

Within two days, the pathfinder program found more than 400 people with various needs, from blood pressure medication to boys’ underwear. But doctors warn of more severe illnesses brewing - cholera and even bubonic plague. Free tetanus shots were being offered all over the county. Lewis keeps track of the calls with a database spreadsheet so he can report each night at 7 to other emergency managers who gather at the EOC for a briefing.

While some of the people at those meetings joke about Lewis’ “big personality” and how he’d be a great thespian, they’re also mostly grateful for the task he’s undertaken. Organizing hundreds, possibly thousands by today, of bighearted but disorganized volunteers is a tough job.

Plus, this weekend, he was even fighting national directives from relief organizations asking people not to volunteer. They don’t want thousands of people coming into the area when they are still trying to evacuate New Orleans. There are no hotel rooms between New Orleans and Tallahassee. Too many volunteers in a disaster zone can become its own disaster.

Still, Lewis got on the radio Friday night and asked for people to come to Gulfport.

Lewis “picked up the ball, ran with it and has scored touchdowns,” said Lt. Jim Troiano, a spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office who was in Gulfport helping with recovery.

‘I told him he should be president’

Last year, Lewis worked in Arcadia after Hurricane Charley and locally with Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances.

“It was the same thing then. Everyone looking to him,” said Luis Rojo, who works with Lewis at his gardening company, Scott Lewis Gardening and Trimming. “I told him he should be president or something.”

Lewis formed his not-for-profit disaster recovery company following Hurricane Floyd and the death of his father from lung cancer in 1995. He sat by his dad’s bedside and talked about the important things in life. Family and helping people became his top priority. For 10 years, he had taken no more than three-day weekends for vacations and was a self-confessed control freak.

“I didn’t give my trust to my guys,” Lewis said about his 25-man yard maintenance crew.

He also became more religious, turning his annual church visit to a weekly ritual.

Another issue that has fueled his spirituality, he said, is a well-publicized 10-year court battle that pits Lewis against a woman to whom he once sold his business. Under the sale agreement, Lewis said he would not compete with her on Palm Beach and that she could keep the name of the company. But problems with consulting and commission fees ruined the arrangement, and Lewis went back into business for himself on Palm Beach.

On Friday, that court fight may as well have been a million miles away.

Lewis woke at 5 a.m. on a 5 1/2-foot turquoise couch in a teacher staff room turned logistics room.

He needed to plan for what he hoped would be 7,000 volunteers streaming into the county. The ones already there were sleeping in tents outside the school and in trailers they’ve hauled from hometowns all over the continent - Canada, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina. The Scientology Disaster Relief team already was set up on the grass near the gymnasium, and a 100-member medical team was on its way, Lewis said. From where?

“I don’t know, I’m not even sure what day it is. I didn’t know until yesterday that Rehnquist died,” Lewis said of the late U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.

And on Friday, he still needed gas. A man offered to sell him 80 gallons.

“Offer him $200,” Lewis told a volunteer.

“What do I do? I’ve got chain saws, a tractor with a bucket and a backhoe,” said Horace Clemmons, a Jackson County, Ala., resident who wandered in early Friday to the principal’s office where Lewis had set up his headquarters.

“We’ll get you with someone,” Lewis said.

“I’m a paramedic from California,” one man said.

“We’ve got a medical triage set up out front,” another woman added.

People need to stop dropping off clothes (there’s way too many), the Guardsmen want recycling bins, and someone should direct the increasing traffic into the school grounds.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get an area out of the emergency room and into the recovery room,” Lewis said of Gulfport.

Monday will mark Lewis’ 10th day here. Ten days of 17-hour workdays.

He wants the county to appoint a full-time staff person to the volunteer effort, but as of Saturday, he had no idea when he’d be able to leave.

HURRICANES FRANCES and JEANNE: STORMS KNOCK BARTOW CROSS-EYED

Randy Gulledge was in the cross hairs of two killers.

One threatened so quickly and fiercely, he had time only to dash to his truck for protection. The second stubbornly pummeled at his windows and doors, taking its time menacing his rural neighborhood.

About 9 miles northeast of this central Florida town of 15,000 is where Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances are estimated to have crossed paths.

Charley blew through unexpectedly last month with winds of 115 mph, ripping off the top of the town’s old water tower and driving a 20-foot flagpole from its perch into a nearby parking lot - with the flag intact.

While debris still littered streets waiting for wood grinders, Frances sauntered through. At that point, it was a Category 1 hurricane, its winds blunted to 75 mph after bashing the east coast. Frances made a nuisance of itself more than anything else.

“I guess we were more psychologically prepared for Frances,” said Gulledge, who took shelter in his truck during Charley to avoid the large trees threatening to smash his mobile home. “I’m just glad they weren’t any bigger. At least they weren’t Andrew.”

On Monday, with about 50,000 Polk County residents out of power, Gulledge sought air-conditioned refuge in a building he owns in downtown Bartow, which houses one of the few businesses that opened - Rico Reed Bail Bonds.

Frances forced cancellation of court appearances Sunday. By 11 a.m., bail bonds manager Merrian Ellis already had four clients. Most of the arrests were for domestic violence.

“We’re open 365 days a year through wind and sleet and rain, or whatever the post office’s motto is,” Ellis said. “If you were in jail on the weekend, wouldn’t you want to get out?”

Bartow Fire Chief Jay Robinson lamented his hometown’s placement on the map.

“We’ve dodged the bullet a lot over the years. Sooner or later we were going to get it,” he said.

And while Robinson watched approaching Hurricane Ivan with a wary eye, 84-year-old Frank Young wasn’t worried.

“Ain’t nothing we can do about it,” Young said while cleaning up his yard, littered with oak tree limbs. “The Old Man Upstairs got to control that.”


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