Tales of survival in hurricane Charley's wake

From floating houses to city seals on the loose, Floridians salvage stories from debris

The moment of truth came at about 3 p.m.

That's when Mike Lowe and Hattie Davis saw a televised weather report and learned for the first time that hurricane Charley had strengthened into a Category 4 storm and was now headed straight toward them.

About a mile away, Pat and Jerry Presseller were also monitoring weather reports. The new information forced them to make a critical decision very quickly - they reasoned that with the storm approaching so fast, there was no time to make a run for it.

"We would have been those foolish people trapped in cars," says Pat. "Instead, we were those foolish people trapped in our house."

To people here, Charley was the storm that was supposed to hit someplace else.

Instead, the hurricane surprised everyone. Rather than heading for Tampa as forecast, it roared up Charlotte Harbor and made landfall with all the destructive force of a 20-mile-wide weed whacker.

Now, one week later, survivors continue to marvel at their messy encounter, and many say that Friday, August 13, was a day they will never forget.

At Mr. Lowe's two-bedroom house, the wind was so strong that the sheets of tin on the roof peeled back and flew away. He watched it happen while standing in his kitchen. "The whole house was jumping all over," Lowe says. "I thought it was going to take the house apart a piece at a time. If it had lasted another hour, it would have."

He and Ms. Davis retreated to the only windowless room in the house, a bathroom off the kitchen. "We thought we were dead meat," Davis says. "That bathroom is the only thing that saved us."

Across town, the Pressellers also retreated to their bathroom. There they huddled with their three daughters (one of whom is six months pregnant), a son-in-law, and four dogs. "I was in charge of the bathroom door," Jerry says. "The door wanted to open."

After about 45 minutes, everything went silent. The wind was gone. Against his wife's advice, Jerry walked outside. "All I saw was blue - just blue sky," he says. Within a minute the wind returned.

"After the eye passed, that's when the [bathroom] door really got hard to hold shut," he says. And something else happened. "The house lifted," Pat says. "It wasn't the Wizard of Oz but it lifted and rattled. We could feel it."

The storm cut a swath of destruction from Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, up the Peace River to Arcadia, across miles of citrus groves to Orlando and Daytona Beach. It left 20 dead, thousands homeless, and more than one million without power. And it has since triggered a massive relief and cleanup effort.

An airborne car and a lost bedroom

Among those who endured it, the storm has also triggered a deep sense of gratitude to still be alive.

When Ken and Kathy Sayers got word that the hurricane was headed toward their Route 17 trailer park, they decided to outrun it. They took their dog, their car, their pickup truck and their 25-foot boat on a trailer and headed north on Route 17 to Arcadia.

"We turned right on State Route 70 and Charley turned right on State Route 70," Kathy says. "We made it to the Wal-Mart Supercenter and had to ride it out in our vehicle in the parking lot in 140-mile-per-hour winds."

For the next hour, they watched from their car as the the 6,000-pound Ford F-350 and 8,000-pound boat seemed at times to lift off the asphalt in violent gusts.

When they returned to their mobile home later that evening, their bedroom was missing. "The house is 14-feet shorter than it should be," Ken says. "Where the back wall is, I don't know.... We've got Christmas decorations in our front yard we never had before."

When hurricane Charley arrived in Arcadia, Harry Carbonneau's Geo Tracker was parked directly in front of his wife's shop. An hour later, it was 30 feet down the street - still upright, but sitting in front of someone else's store.

Mr. Carbonneau had a bird's-eye view of his car's movement because he'd positioned himself at the front door in an attempt to prevent it from blowing outward. "I was holding onto the handle with my weight back," he says. "You could feel the door flexing."

His wife, Pat, kept up a running commentary on the storm over the telephone to her father. "I kept telling my dad, 'My God, Harry is going to get sucked out,' " she says.

At one point, Harry noticed what he thought was a manhole cover flying through the air toward him. It missed the shop's plate glass windows and slid to a stop near the front door. When the wind subsided, Harry discovered it was the Arcadia city seal. The solid brass seal had blown all the way from City Hall - two and a half blocks away and around a corner.

Stranger than fiction

An equally unusual sight greeted Sandy MacGibbon when he returned to his historic cottage in Punta Gorda. A four-by-six-foot beam had punched through a side wall of his house. It remains in the wall.

Such a vivid display of wind would merit attention on its own, but what brought wind-speed engineers from Texas Tech to Mr. MacGibbon's house was the fact that the beam had come from MacGibbon's own roof, which was destroyed in the storm. The working theory, he says, is that a small tornado spawned within the larger storm propelled the beam up and away from the house and then slammed it back into the structure.

Members of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in Arcadia are pondering a bit of storm damage that seems to defy explanation. It apparently happened as Hurricane Charley ripped away a portion of the church's steeply pitched slate roof just above the altar. The roof fell outside the church, leaving the altar area open to the sky.

After the storm passed, someone noticed the two-foot ornamental cross positioned in its usual place, upright behind the altar. The cross is solid brass and weighs about 10 pounds.

The Rev. Greg Fry says there was no indication any debris fell on the cross, but he holds it up to reveal that the once-straight cross now has a 30-degree bend.

"It was very, very strange when we found that," he says. "It is almost like the cross is bowing to ... whatever."

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