For Some, Sailing Through a Storm

As New Orleans braces for Georges, Florida finds itself largely unscathed.

When the eye of hurricane Georges arrived, Julie Gully made pork chops. Actually, "pork chops, potatoes, and green beans," she says, precisely.

All across the Florida Keys on Friday, beleaguered residents were skipping meals or chowing down on Twinkies and potato chips just to get through the storm. Not Mrs. Gully, who rode out Georges aboard the 30-foot sloop she shares with her husband, Ed, and a 120-pound Rottweiler named Beau.

"You've got to keep up a normal routine," she says, explaining how she whipped up the meal in the galley as Ed dashed around the sailboat readjusting their mooring lines in anticipation of the second, more violent, half of the hurricane.

The Gullys and tens of thousands of others in the Florida Keys are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, the massive storm is still on the move and strengthening. At time of writing it is churning in the general direction of New Orleans, with landfall expected this morning.

That prospect sparked a call for the evacuation of the 1.3 million population of New Orleans, a particularly vulnerable city built behind levies and with an average elevation of five feet below sea level. The concern is that a combination of levee-breaching storm surge and prolonged rains could leave 10 feet or more of water in many parts of downtown.

In the Florida Keys, residents and officials have begun the grim task of cleaning up and assessing damage. Specially trained dogs are being led from house to house in an effort to locate any bodies or trapped survivors. So far, they have found none.

Emergency and relief officials consider the lack of fatalities a major accomplishment in a storm that claimed more than 300 lives elsewhere in the Caribbean.

In Key West, the city's historic district and popular Duval Street suffered no extensive damage other than the loss of shade trees, which had grown too tall in the island's thin soil.

On the Atlantic side of the island, a foot of sand and turtle grass covered State Highway A1A near the city beach. In some places, old conch shells were pushed by waves from the sea bottom onto city streets below thigh-high water. It was a kind of natural tribute to a place known among tongue-in-cheek secessionists as The Conch Republic.

IN the most graphic destruction on Key West, a neighborhood of seaborne squatters known as Houseboat Row was nearly destroyed. A combination of tidal surge, waves, and wind sent 20 of the 26 makeshift houseboats crashing into a concrete bulkhead, where they either flipped or sank in high waves.

The Gullys were safely moored on the other side of the island among 100 or so other occupied sailboats and floating homes at the City Marina. Virtually all of those survived intact. The Gullys' sloop, Golden Omen, came through the storm without a scratch, they say.

Such stories of triumph and loss are continuing to filter out of the Keys. While most televised news accounts focus on isolated pockets of destruction - leaving a general impression of widespread disaster - the fact is that there are many more stories of triumph than tragedy.

Keys residents remain divided on the issue of whether they should have evacuated to the mainland. Some who stayed in their homes say they found the experience too terrifying and they will head for high ground should another hurricane threaten. Others say they would consider staying for another storm the size of Georges, but anything stronger and they would go. Still others say were exhilarated.

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," says Michael Chodzin, who owns a home in Key West's historic district. The 106-year-old house has survived many hurricanes and was built by a sea captain to weather such storms. But even his house wasn't immune to the howling wind.

"That old house, it was shaking," he says. "I mean, it was moving."

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