The other day I turned on the tap in my kitchen to make some iced tea and noticed that the cold water was not very cold at all. Some of my friends in other parts of Pensacola have very cold tap water, but I do not. There is something about this house and the particular well that we draw from, I guess. Anyway, it reminded me of the September of 2004, when Hurricane Ivan struck Pensacola. Wow, 2004? Heh, doesn't seem like it was that long ago.
Since I moved here in 1988, Pensacola had been hit by two hurricanes: Erin; and Opal in August and October of 1995 respectively. Afterward, things were quiet for nearly ten years. Then we met Ivan.
As opposed to Californians and their inevitable earthquakes, we Floridians know when hurricanes are coming. So we have no excuse for not preparing. I, however, am an idiot. In fact, you might say that I am King Of The Idiots. I prepared for Ivan...not one bit. I did not stock up on groceries or water or supplies or anything. Because I live pretty far from the water (nearly 10 miles from the beach), I assumed that "damage" would not be extensive and that surely McDonald's would be open soon after the storm passed. Heh. Idiot.
On September 13, 2004, Ivan barged through the channel between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 5 storm. Once in the Gulf of Mexico it headed for New Orleans. However, instead of going right up the mouth of the Mississippi, Ivan jogged to the east and "beached-in" at Gulf Shores, Alabama which is just to our west. Fortunately, the storm weakened as it approached the coastline, ultimately hitting as a strong Cat-3. Even so, the destruction in Gulf Shores and over to Dauphin Island was astounding. The worst weather of a hurricane is around the eye-wall, obviously, but also on the northeast side. As you can imagine, everything east of Gulf Shores, including Pensacola and down to nearly Ft. Walton Beach was hit badly. Here in Florida, Ivan was responsible for fourteen deaths.
The back side of my house faces south and adjoins a high school. Just beyond my fence is a huge, unobstructed parking lot. In 2004 my roof was new. We blocked the south-facing windows and hoped for the best. The power went out around six p.m., suspiciously even before the weather got very bad. (I still believe that Gulf Power intentionally shut it off.) But before it did we knew that the storm was changing direction toward us. As darkness fell things got worse and worse. There wasn't anything to do but lie in bed and wait for it to pass, rethinking my stupid decision to stay instead of evacuate and hoping that in the morning I wouldn't find my car impaled by a pine tree. Or me, for that matter.
When daylight came it was bright and sunny. A quick assessment showed no broken windows, no downed trees...hell, I didn't even lose a shingle! Some of my immediate neighbors were not so fortunate. Just a block away it was apparent that a "mini-tornado" of some sort touched down; the short path of its destruction was quite clear. The power was out but I still had water and phone.
While it is true that my area did not suffer from flooding, there was extensive structural damage, especially to the power grid. While many areas of the country have seen fit to bury power lines, Gulf Power has decided against such practice here. Initial estimates were that we could be without power for as much as a month. I hoped they were just being pessimistic.
Without power there was no food. No McDonalds. No Wal-Mart. No nothing. I had enough canned food to last for a couple of days, so I wasn't really worried. But without power, gas stations could not pump. Gasoline became precious and something to not waste by driving around aimlessly, although many people did just to see the damage. And oh boy, was there damage!
What you're looking at above is a section of Interstate 10 that goes from Pensacola across Escambia Bay to Pace/Milton. It is a 2.5 mile bridge that is a good eleven miles north of Pensacola Beach. It was built in two separate sections: two lanes each of east and westbound traffic. The roadway was built low, just above the water level. The geniuses who designed it apparently never considered the fact that the water in the bay might be a little, well, "rough." Hurricane Ivan churned up waves so high and strong that nearly the entire stretch of bridge was destroyed from below. It took them four years to rebuild it. As you have probably guessed, the new bridge is much higher off the water.
Very quickly, the National Guard set up a distribution station in the high school parking lot right behind my house. They were giving away ice, water and MRE's. Very efficient, and the lines moved swiftly. I would simply watch through my fence to see when the line wasn't so long, then I'd go around and drive through. Without hoarding, I was able to keep my coolers stocked with ice.
To their credit, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and the local supermarkets opened just as soon as they could - within two days or so. Supplies were obviously limited (delivery trucks could not get through) but canned and dried foods were once again available (no frozen or cold foods though). Since I'm a camper, I whipped out my camping gear and was able to cook pretty much normally. I was working for a consulting firm at the time, and since I had phone and food, we kind of made my place our base of operations for a couple of days.
Having no electricity meant no air conditioning, of course. And no hot water. Since it was September it wasn't all that hot. And the cold showers were, to me, not all that unpleasant because as I said, my cold water isn't very. Nobody had t.v. though, so we couldn't find out how extensive the damage was until later. We knew it was bad though. We spent a lot of time in our backyards, reading and listening to the radio.
Through it all, the people of Pensacola came together in a wonderful way. It was like the entire city collectively decided that it was just going to make the best of this bad situation. Quite marvelous to experience. Everybody pitched in to help where they could. Churches and the Red Cross served meals indiscriminately. There was food aplenty - if you went hungry...or without water or ice, it was your own fault. People's opinions vary, but I believe that the state and local agencies handled the response to Hurricane Ivan in a textbook manner...at least here in Pensacola proper.
Our power was out for about a week, maybe a little longer, I don't remember. What I do remember is that it didn't seem to be such a hardship. Not that I'd want to go through it again...
History tells us that we probably will though. Hurricane Katrina missed us in 2005. That one did do some damage to Louisiana and Mississippi as you'll recall. For us, after Ivan we were hit by Hurricanes Dennis and Georges - minor storms. Nothing would compare to "The Big One." At least, that's what we called it. And that's what many Pensacolians still think. Not me, brother.
And now there's Fay.
Right now, as of shortly before eight p.m. on Sunday evening Fay is still a tropical storm. The projected path, as you can see has it - somehow - making a sharp right turn and sliding up the west coast of Florida. But if you look at the last bit of track history, you'll see that it's still moving west-northwest and hasn't yete begun that northward turn. In fact, the latest track shows Fay bending slightly more to the west than northwest. Maybe they know something that we don't...
Or maybe they don't! I know it's still way too early to tell. We'll just have to wait and see where this storm goes, and how strong it gets. But I promise you this: Never again will I be as unprepared for a week without power as I was in 2004. I've learned my lesson.