Going on vacation with Charley

Saturday, August 14, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. -- Disney World this isn't.

That's what my original vacation plans included for Friday.

But then along came Charley.

I've been spending Friday within the confines of The Tampa Tribune with my friend, Heidi Hall, a former managing editor for the Southeast Missourian. We're right downtown, but the building that houses the newspaper and a television station allegedly can withstand hurricanes. In exchange for refuge -- and sandwiches -- I've been helping answer the newsroom's switchboard.

When I planned this visit, the possibility of encountering a hurricane never entered my mind. They seem to hit the East Coast all the time -- but Tampa? I'm no meteorologist, but it seems there's something special about the geography that makes this area impervious to hurricanes.

Shows what I know.

As a boy from Southeast Missouri, the only severe weather conditions I've experienced are snowstorms and the occasional threat of a tornado.

For me, a hurricane is a wind of change.

In Southeast Missouri people go nuts and stock up on milk and bread when severe weather looms. Here it's batteries, water and beer. And for the past few days, locals have been getting ready by boarding up their homes, putting tape across their windows -- which research shows to be ineffective -- and fleeing to shelters.

The reactions of folks down here varied widely. Florida newcomers and travelers were panicking. But others who have survived previous hurricanes weren't too worried. In fact, earlier in the day a TV reporter was interviewing a guy at the beach who couldn't have been more oblivious.

"I've got a cooler full of supplies right here," he giddily announced.

Early models indicated Charley was just a Category 2 tropical storm. Then it was upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane. The difference, as explained to me, is getting hit in the head with a 200-pound safe versus a 300-pound safe. By the time it finally made landfall at Sanibel Island, Fla., Charley was a Category 4.

Tampa didn't get the direct hit that we feared.

While the storm isn't over just yet as I write this, it's mostly finished with us and has headed northeast.

And it looks like we won't be spending the night here as we earlier had anticipated. A few newspaper employees who had planned on being stranded in the building began to pack up their pillows and blankets and head for home around 6 p.m.

Maybe I'll be able to salvage the rest of my weekend before I fly home.

But Disney World will have to wait until some other time.

Gabe Hartwig is the design editor for the Southeast Missourian

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