Twenty years ago today, long before the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the New Jersey shoreline by Superstorm Sandy, Hernando County’s coastal region experienced a similar wrath on March 13, 1993.
Long-time residents of Aripeka, Bayport, Hernando Beach, Weeki Wachee Gardens and Pine Island will remember the storm known by many names — “The Storm of the Century,” “The One Hundred Years Storm” — but mostly referred to as “The No-Name Storm.”
It received its No-Name status mainly because it did not occur during the Atlantic hurricane season, from June 1 until Nov. 30.
Weather forecasters of the day all agree, however: “This was the mother of all winter storms.”
Fred Osby, who was director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City at the time, said he “didn’t think anybody was old enough to have seen something like this before.”
Forecasters agreed that the No-Name storm was “unprecedented.”
Ron Humble, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service said at the time the storm was “a once in a lifetime event.”
The No-Name storm paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, from Cuba to Canada.
In the Northeast, more than 4-feet of snow fell, shattering previous records. In Virginia alone, 14-foot snowdrifts were reported, with wind howling to almost 100 mph.
In its wake, the monster storm left 1 one million people without power, millions of dollars in property damage and 107 dead.
Some 26 of those victims were from Florida.
That total could have been higher.
On the evening of March 12, I was concerned about the weather and took a walk to the seawall at the end of Pandora Drive to look out over the Gulf’s horizon.
Lightning in the distance was constant and more sustained than usual.
There was something brewing out there and I turned to the TV for weather updates. We would discover later that the reports were misleading.
My roommate at that time, Kimberly Kelly, and I were renting a small beach house in Pine Island.
I recall the night vividly.
In the early-morning hours a sloshing sound awoke us.
The Gulf was slapping the floor from underneath.
We ran to the front window and watched how rapidly and deep the tide rose.
The raging water lifted the rear of Kimberly’s car and spun it in the front yard like a pinwheel in the wind.
You could hear the waves crashing onto the nearby seawall.
It did not take long for the house to begin filling with the Gulf water.
First, it began to seep up through the floor.
As it got deeper, water poured in from the doorways.
The Florida room was a step lower than the rest of the house.
It was first to go.
I could not pick up my camera fast enough to catch the turbulence rip the Florida room from the main house.
Immediately after that, things got especially scary.
The lights began to flicker and it was apparent that the only place to go now was up.
In the hallway, there was a trap door in the ceiling. It led to the attic.
Thankfully, I had gotten a ladder earlier from the storage room.
Picking up items along the way, we hastily made our adescent into the attic’s crawlspace.
With cameras over my shoulder, I stuffed my jacket pocket with a company-issued two-way radio, some candles and a lighter.
I carried a hammer, saw and flashlight in my hands.
The water rose two feet every hour and we made it into the attic just in time.
Crawling on the narrow plank that stretched the length of the house, we tried going over to the east side of the house first.
The scent from a leaking propane tank and the smell of gasoline from a toppled can made it a volatile situation.
We quickly steered in the opposite direction and crawled our way to the west side of the house.
By now, the water had risen so high, it had begun saturating the acoustic tiles on the ceiling below us.
The material got so wet it began to drip down like oatmeal leaving a spoon. The insulation above the tiles dropped as well.
As the view below began to become greater, we watched our possessions float by and eventually disappear.
Personally, I had lost everything I had ever owned.
Lost forever were all the photographs I accumulated over the years.
It was not just my professional portfolio or the photographs of famous people I had the honor of photographing, but most dear to me was the portrait of my grandfather, Lipman Harris, taken of him before shipping out with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.
Who would have ever thought the Gulf of Mexico would rise more than 12 feet?
It did rise and kept rising.
The sound of glass bursting in the background, hastened me to prepare us to make a quick exit from inside the roof trusses.
We were stunned when my neighbor’s boat came loose from its trailer.
The 16-foot boat and engine slammed through the bedroom wall, went through the house and exited the other side.
It only took a few seconds for the walls to collapse.
It was time to create an exit.
Feverishly I smashed out the aluminum heat vent from the side of the house.
The opening was too small to fit through, so the saw came in handy.
When daylight broke, it entered through our exit.
I instinctively grabbed my camera and shot as many pictures as I could.
I even took a few pictures of Kimberly. Fear and emotion filled her face.
Being equally scared, I could have turned the camera on myself.
It was, however, a critical time and we had to get out of there.
Maintaining my composure was the key to us not drowning.
Just outside of our escape hole, a metal pipe anchored in the ground stood alongside the house. It was an old TV antenna pole.
I remember going through the hole in the roof and supporting myself by holding onto the pole secured to the eave.
That pole and the wood securing it was our way out.
I remember going through the hole in the roof and supporting myself enough to assist Kimberly in getting out.
As she attempted to exit out of the attic, roof truss, a rippling swell came out of the Gulf and knocked her back into swirling water under the structure.
I thought I had lost her.
Without hesitation, I ducked down underwater where I saw her flailing backward.
I grabbed the top of her arm near her sleeve, gave her a good yank and brought her back to the surface.
Sadly, my two Canon A-1 SLRs floated off my shoulder and sank quickly into rising water. (Two days later, a reporter from another newspaper rescued one of the cameras.)
Getting to the roof bought us time in trying to stay ahead of the rising waterline.
As we ran across the roof, parts of it began to buckle.
Torrential rain, high wind and a few pieces of the house is all we had.
Kimberly had just about given up hope.
Holding on to her for a few minutes seemed like hours.
But the sound of a helicopter coming from afar sparked hope.
Grabbing a piece of ceiling tile out of the water, I waved it toward the incoming helicopter.
It was just before 9 a.m.
U.S. Coast Guard pilot Bruce Frail was is on a rescue mission flying a Sikorski helicopter north out of Clearwater along Florida’s West Coast.
“When we arrived on the scene, the ocean itself had just inundated the entire community of Pine Island,” Frail said.
Winds of 50 mph buffeted the aircraft, hampering rescue efforts.
At first, the pilot did not see us and circled.
Thankfully, a flight mechanic said to Frail: “Did you see that? There are two people standing on part of a roof down there.”
Kimberly became upset watching them fly off.
Frail, however, was actually repositioning the craft.
Fighting the wind, he held the helicopter steady.
Looking up toward the sky, raindrops pelted my face as I thanked God for giving us the strength to get through this tragedy.
A crewmember lowered a rescue basket; a frogman followed and assisted Kimberly to safety.
I was next.
As the line pulled me upward, I remember agonizing over the loss of my cameras.
At the same time, I could not help seeing Pine Island Park.
All the picnic pavilions were underwater.
I could see the observation deck had been tossed off its foundation and floated across the park.
It ended up slamming into a tree at the damaged snack bar.
The inventory there of ice cream bars snaked out of the storeroom and left a trail of them floating across the submerged parking lot.
I, however, was thankful we still had our lives.
Aboard the helicopter, I thanked the crew for showing up when they did.
We were the first two people in Hernando County to be evacuated by air, but there were many more to follow.
Six more neighbors would join us aboard the rescue helicopter, including snack bar owner Willie Kochunian, his wife, Candace, and their dog, Blackie.
Some of the others aboard have since passed away or moved on since that storm.
Flown to the Hernando County Airport, we were then transported to the evacuation center inside the Springstead High School gym.
Harry Wilson remembers that day quite well.
“It happened very fast,”, Wilson said.
At that time he was Springstead’s adult education coordinator.
Wilson and others administrators helped with the evacuees.
“We were there to lend assistance because we were the ones who had all the keys.”
The school’s custodial staff and cafeteria crew were there as well.
Wilson and others acted as counselors.
“People were coming in there from out on the coast in their underwear,” said Wilson. “That water came up so fast they did not have time to react; they didn’t have time to get their medications. So, it was just a very scary time for so many people.”
Literally hundreds of people were evacuated to the gym and needed help.
“So many people that were distraught,”, he said.
Including me, after I tried to convey to Wilson how we almost drowned.
“There were so many stories,” Wilson said.
In Aripeka, resident William Kahn rigged ropes between homes on Sunset Vista Drive to pull his boat and ferry residents out safely.
Kahn, who was 58, had a massive heart attack.
A neighbor, artist Arlene Erdrich, tried resuscitating him but was unsuccessful. She and 14 others waited nearly nine hours for rescue workers to get to them.
Kahn, a Good Samaritan, died a hero.
My return to Pine Island in 1996 shocked many of my friends.
Most warned me it could happen again. They questioned my sanity.
Home, however, is home.
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