Battening down, lucking out, counting our blessings – The worst didn’t come, but it came to our doorstep

Battening down, lucking out, counting our blessings – The worst didn’t come, but it came to our doorstep

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

Capt. Sandy Melvin sat his big Yeti cup down at Whidden’s Marina on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 10. After making his last-minute checks and adjustments of dockage and boats, he hopped back in his truck and left … leaving his Yeti behind. This is a character trait of his, to leave his giant cup everywhere, and he’s a bit of a legend now. But wouldn’t you know it, on the morning of September 11 it was still sitting right there on the dock box by the gas pump, filled with melted ice and flat Diet Mountain Dew.

For those of you who haven’t heard yet, that incident really is a metaphor for how Gasparilla Island fared in the storm called Hurricane Irma. We’re still sitting here, upright, with the exception of a little more flatness.

It was a frantic few days around here when Hurricane Irma came close to stopping by. The worst didn’t come to our little island, but it did come just up to our doorstep. Had the storm been a mere 40 miles west of where the eye did travel – where it had been predicted to hit for a good long time – this article would have had a lot different tone.

For a time the meteorologists were dead sure that the hurricane would hit Miami, so much so that many of us started to breathe again. So much so that the headline on our Friday, Sept. 8 issue read, “All eyes on Irma: The storm once headed for us shows how we can all work together.” This was a sure thing in the weather world, the fact that this storm was headed toward Miami. (It’s also a sure thing in the newspaper business that if you guess on a headline, it will be wrong.)

Then the reports changed. They started to vaguely insinuate on Thursday night that the storm might be wobbling a little bit from its head-on course with the east coast of the state. It changed so much that when we woke up on Friday, Sept. 8, we were being told the storm was all but coming here.In just 24 hours, Irma’s course seemed to be charted right along our Southwest Florida coast.

BEFORE THE STORM:

All the while there were people preparing. While many were pulling in their lawn ornaments, throwing their chaise lounges in the pool and buying up bottled water, there were others around who were diligently working for the community.

When was the last time Boca Grande Fire Chief C.W. Blosser had a day off? He may not remember, considering he was not only the head of the Boca Grande Emergency Operations Center and coordinator of many storm projects, but his own home in Arcadia was in Irma’s crosshairs. Blosser and the firefighters evacuated the station on Friday, Sept. 9, but they had already been working for days. The station has an entire set of Standard Operating Procedures they follow, including securing their own fuel supply, checking the area for large items that could become flying debris, and shuttering the Boca Grande Health Clinic.

Part of their SOP was to evacuate the island in the event a very large and dangerous hurricane was headed this way, and Irma gave Boca Grande firefighters their first chance in history to actually follow it. They have never had to leave before.

“We have spoken with Sarasota County and Englewood Fire, but we realized that all of our first options were also in a flood zone. North Port was the next closest place we could go to that was not in a flood zone, so that’s where we ended up,” he said.

Blosser led several EOC meetings up until the day the storm hit, with anywhere between 35 and 50 people in attendance – including representatives from the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, the Boca Grande Health Clinic, the Gasparilla Island Water Association, the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, excavation and repair companies and many others.

In the meetings he would give a wrap-up of what he had heard about the storm’s projected path and strength, about what Charlotte and Lee County leaders were reporting from their EOC updates, and he would answer any questions that were to be had. On that Friday morning in September, for many gathered in the fire department training room it was ominous to hear Blosser use the words, “When we evacuate the station,” and not “if.”

It was a final testament to the fact that anyone who was left on Gasparilla Island was, in fact, totally on their own.Lt. Mike D’Angelo summed it up when he explained, “If we are leaving the island and you are behind us, you are too late.”

DURING THE STORM: 

When Hurricane Irma came as close as she was going to get, it was late Saturday. Only a handful of residents were on the island.

The highest wind gust was recorded at Mosquito Control on E. Railroad Avenue on September 10 at 9:30 p.m. It was 58 mph.

Believe it or not, there were still island reports all the way through the storm. The Lee County EOC was feeding information to Blosser, who had his own chain of people to notify by text what was going on. The GICIA and the Boca Beacon were sending that information out on their emails and on Facebook.

The Beacon Facebook response was enormous, with many people getting the only information there was to be had about this specific area from the posts. New reports were posted as soon as they were received, including when and if there was property damage to homes, where trees were down, what winds were like during the storm and how much rain was received.

Between September 9 (the day before the storm) and September 15 the Boca Beacon Facebook page had 166,300 people visiting, trying to figure out what was going on here on the island.

AFTER THE STORM: 

Being here on the island the day after the storm was strange, because all you could hear was a shower of leaves dropping out of the trees. While some plants and a lot of grass looked brown and dead immediately afterward, the big strangler figs, sea grapes, banyans, mahoganies and others looked all right at first light on Monday; then they started to lose all their leaves. For days the sound continued.

It sounded like mid-October in a northern town.

It was 22-year-old Reed Sligar, who lives on Gilchrist Avenue, who gave many island residents their first glimpse of “normal,” at least the first they had since the storm.

He and his mother, Sue, stayed through the storm in their home.

“Basically we felt in a three-story house it made more sense,” he said. “We were in a room without windows on the third floor. In the worst-case scenario, a 15-foot storm surge, we would still be safe there.”

Reed said his mother was somewhat hesitant whether to stay or go, but it wasn’t a huge decision for her to stay. Reed had no thought of leaving. They prepared as best they could and began to wait it out with their dog and their salamander. Reed said that when they first started to notice the wind picking up it was dark outside.

“It came in at night, late, and there was still residual wind in the morning,” Reed said. “At the height of it, as you would expect, it was just a lot of howling wind, a kind of drawn-out humming sound.”

His first video was taken in the night-time hours of the storm, and he first stepped outside on the morning of the 11th.

He said the only surge of water he saw the entire time was in video footage taken at the south end of the island, and then on the north end. He thought the deepest water he saw couldn’t have been much more than a foot deep.

The strangest part of the storm, he said, was the ghost-town aura of the island right before the storm hit.

“I was walking around and saw maybe a couple of people the whole time,” he said. “There was a definite weirdness about it, a Twilight Zone feeling.”

Of the several videos he took during and after Irma, the most-viewed video was the one he took downtown right after the storm. It incurred about 25,000 views. If you total the views from all of his videos published on YouTube, hits are at about 90,000.

At the first safe opportunity the firefighters returned to Boca Grande, and they immediately starting cleaning up the streets. They also started door-to-door assessments of property, checking the welfare of anyone who they knew had stayed on the island. At that time they were running with no phone system and no cell service, so anyone with an emergency would have had to come to the station. Only one person did in the whole time the phone system was down, and that was a woman who became overheated cleaning up after the storm.

Up until late this week the fire department has been working with the electric linemen, who have come to the island many times over. There were many problems on the south end of the island from the state park at the tip up to Baily and Gasparilla Streets and into Boca Bay, and some people were without power from the time the power went out until this past Thursday.

Linemen from Texas, Ohio and other states have stopped by Boca Grande to fix our electrical grid. The first big wave of linemen came onto the island on Thursday, Sept. 14 in the morning, and they had a lot of power problems fixed by about 11:30 p.m. that evening. The Gasparilla Inn & Club was more than generous in setting them up with clean, air-conditioned rooms at The Innlet … providing, of course, they got the power back up there. Of course, they did.

They were the first beds many of the guys had slept in for a very long time, as they had traveled directly from Texas, where Hurricane Harvey had just so savagely slammed their Gulf Coast, to Florida. Sleeping in trucks was far more common than sleeping in beds at that point, and dinner was usually not much more than something from a gas station.

That day around lunchtime, islander Kevin Kelley was talking to the guys and asked them where they were going to get lunch. Realizing there was very little open to get a bite to eat, he set it up with South Beach Bar & Grill to get them a very impressive impromptu lunch. Islanders Jon Reecher and Phil and Mary O’Bannon followed up with a potluck dinner for the linemen, so suffice it to say the gentlemen from T&D Solutions out of Johnson City, Texas under the leadership of Foreman Taylor O’Bar felt very much welcome on the island.

Before the last howling winds of Irma had subsided, Emily and Howard Wise, owners of Hudson’s Grocery, were gathering supplies with their employees from another one of their companies, Saginaw Steel in Birmingham, Alabama to bring to Boca Grande.

The week before Irma arrived they loaded up an 18-wheeler and pointed it at the island. When it was safe, the crew brought supplies including generators, spray pumps, food and water. They weren’t originally headed toward Immokolee, where they ended up … that truck was packed with supplies for Boca Grande residents who had originally been projected to be in the direct path of the hurricane.

“Our focus was to get to our friends in Boca Grande as soon as it was safe to do so,” Emily Wise said. “We had lots of donations from our employees from Alabama who have visited and loved this island, and their Hudson’s Grocery family. We are beyond grateful and blessed that Irma decided not to make a direct visit.”

The trailer was packed with everything from generators and chain saws to water, Gatorade, baby products and nonperishable food. When the trailer arrived at Hudson’s, it was loaded up with more food, coolers and ice.

“Some supplies were pulled from the trailer and will head to the Florida Keys to help our fishing buddies there,” Emily said. “Bobby Miller (from Grande Aire) is taking some of it on his own tractor-trailer, and fishing guide Jason Miller from Key West is going as well. Bobby and Jason will be working to get those supplies distributed down there.”

After much research and many phone calls, a very trusted friend and great source of information let Emily know that Immokolee was hard hit and in desperate need. After procuring a few more items donated by The Barnichol Hardware Store, they headed out toward Imokolee on Tuesday morning, Sept. 19. Capt. Charlie Coleman and his wife Nicole were with them, as were Smitty Smith and Amber Gassman. The driver of their 18-wheeler was Jeff, an employee from the Birmingham steel plant.

After stopping first at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and unloading at that distribution center, they loaded up their cars and trucks and went directly into the trailer parks and apartment complexes where a majority of people were without power and water.

“We also handed out diapers and baby items, and toys and coloring books,” Emily said. “The generators went to the sick, the elderly and homes of children with special needs first. We delivered those personally to their homes. We had a wonderful guy named Carlos working with us. He was our translator, and he gave all the people instruction on the use of the generators.”

In the meantime, people like Kacy Joiner Cheske, Ronica Davis, Candy Brooks and Nancy and Kevin Hyde were hard at work gathering more donations. In a matter of three days, Kacy and Candy put together enough money (donated through the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce and private individuals) to completely fill their vehicles with supplies to take down to the areas hardest hit. They are scheduled to head out with a few others on Saturday, Sept. 23.

Ronica Davis, a generational island girl who owns Native Gardens on East Railroad Avenue, said she will keep gathering donations and distributing them as needed until the need for food, water and other necessities has tapered off. Nancy and Kevin have been gathering items through the Englewood Area Board of Realtors, and their supplies will be hitting the road soon as well.

Island resident Mary O’Bannon has managed to put together a deal with Land’s End clothing company to get a dramatic reduction on the price of children’s shoes and apparel, and with money left over she plans to add personal hygiene kits for children into the mix as well.

The Boca Grande Child Care Center and Our Lady of Mercy Church, together with Catholic Charities, are collecting nonperishable food and water to help the residents in an area of Naples which suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irma. Food delivery trucks have been delayed, and there is an urgent need for non-perishable food and for water.

Non-perishable food items and bottled water can be dropped off at the Boca Grande Child Care Center to be transported to St. Peter the Apostle Parish Ministry Center in Naples.

As far as damage on the island goes, most landscaping debris has been picked up and much of life is back to normal.

The worst damage appeared to take place down at the Amory Chapel and in Gasparilla Island State Park. The chapel was buried under feet of sand, and park rangers have kept the park closed to move debris, take down the boardwalks that were destroyed and fix as much as they can. Parks Manager III Chad Lach said after a call for volunteers and supplies was put on the Boca Beacon Facebook page, a man named Steve just showed up with a Bobcat and said they could use it for awhile. It made digging out the chapel much easier.

Misty Nichols, executive director of the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, said damage received on their property was minor.

“We lost about 95 percent of our gold trees,” she said, “but they don’t do well in high winds. We also lost a few trees on the Conservancy property.”

Joe Wier at the Boca Grande Community Center said they reopened on Wednesday, Sept. 20 and they are back in business. While the building didn’t sustain any significant damage (minor electrical problems and a little flooding), Wier did address the beach access issues. There are a few spots they are still working on, but he expects them to be cleared next week. The Wheeler Road Ballfield is open as well.

Wier said all Lee County Department of Transportation roads have been cleared of debris at this time, and if residents still have a large pickup of yard waste in front of their home they need to call Charlotte County Waste Management and arrange a special pickup. Each resident is allowed two special pickups a year without a charge.

There was a thought at one time that the big FEMA trucks would come to do a mass pickup of landscaping waste, but as it turns out their smallest trucks were too big to come on the island.

Wier said road flooding during and after the storm was experienced on Gulf Boulevard at the Range Light, but it subsided relatively quickly. Flooding at Belcher Road and south of that at Gasparilla Island State Park subsided at a relatively normal rate, but maintenance crews are expected to be checking the main drainage systems and secondary arteries, all of which lead into the lake in Boca Bay.

That arrangement was created so the runoff from our streets is filtered through the big lake, then through a secondary, smaller lake before the water spills out into Charlotte Harbor. There appears to be some sort of blockage in one of the drainage routes, which is why there has been so much more flooding in that area lately.

Flooding at the north end was prolific during this storm. With the rain event we had just days prior to Irma’s outer rain bands dousing us, water levels in the ditches and mangroves that line the road around Boca Grande Resort and Grande Quay were already up to the road. As of press time on Thursday, Sept. 21 there was still water standing in the northbound lane of Gasparilla Road at that spot.

More research will be done as to how that might be corrected in the future.

If you are interested in donating items, through amazon.com or by monetary donation you can contact the Boca Beacon at 964-2995. We will be able to answer any questions you might about how to get a hold of specific people or organizations. You can also check our Facebook page.

SIDENOTE: Due to a water main break downtown residents and businesses on the east side of Park Avenue between 4th and 1st Streets, 4th and 5th Streets on both sides of the road are under a boil water notice until Friday, Sept. 22 around noon. Check the Boca Beacon Facebook page for updates on that, or go to mygiwa.com.