Aug 312016

Clearwater Beach, 1969

August 31, 2016 — I rarely take a vacation by myself.  After a visit to a writer’s conference last spring, I experienced the benefits of a retreat. Getting away alone to read and write for a few days recharged my batteries.  It’s been a long, hot summer and I need a break.  On a whim, I planned another retreat over Labor Day while my husband works.

I chose a special place, Clearwater Beach, Florida. For the first half of my life, I frequently spent time on Clearwater Beach, usually around the Palm Pavillion.

Yesterday, Jim Cantore ruined my dream of sitting in a cabana of a beach-front hotel.  He waved his weather wand and my tanned cabana boy, disappeared with his tray of Bellini’s.  Poof, off in a storm surge. 

Most of yesterday the Weather Channel featured Cantore on Pier Sixty at Clearwater Beach, crushing my dreams into the dirt, not white sand, but grimy Indiana soil. While it was still sunny and beautiful yesterday, today the rains hit with a vengeance.  The Director of Emergency Management for Hillsborough County (Tampa) is talking about evacuations. The Weather Channel has a fancy new logo “Hurricane Central” which signals my retreat dreams fading away, rolling back like the waves on a beach.  Rolling, rolling away on that bright white crystalline sand beach with the blue skies and puffy clouds of my dreams.

I’m okay with staying home because a visit to the beach this weekend would be anything but a dream.  I experienced the wrath of gusty, evening rains and wind in Florida as well as hurricanes and tropical storms and depressions. But my experience with Hurricane Elena, a Category 2 hurricane that came into Tampa Bay and up the Hillsborough River, sealed the deal for me.  As long as I can help it, I will never be near another hurricane.

On Labor Day weekend 1985, we watched the Tampa Bay Bucs play the Washington Redskins in an NFL pre-season game at Tampa Stadium.

1946 Florida Hurricane Map, NOAA Central Library

1946 Florida Hurricane Map, NOAA Central Library

My husband and I had moved to Tampa the previous June from Pinellas County (where Clearwater is.)    Something was up because a cool rain drizzled throughout the game; the rain didn’t come from above but from the west, that is, sideways.  The drive home to Temple Terrace (a suburb near the University of South Florida, north side of Tampa) was harrowing in our little Chevette, with powerful wind gusts punctuating our drive north on I-275. Here’s what the

Here’s what the “Tampa Bay Times” recalled about the storm.

For three days over the 1985 Labor Day weekend, Hurricane Elena stalled off the coast of West Central Florida and held it a virtual hostage. More than 300,000 residents fled their homes, the largest peace-time evacuation in U.S. history.

Although Elena never came closer than 80 miles to the Tampa Bay area, its 40 to 50 mph sustained winds caused tides six feet above normal on the beaches and seven feet above normal in the bay. The storm killed four people, destroyed more than 250 homes and damaged thousands of others before finally moving north and coming ashore in Mississippi. Elena washed away the landmark Indian Rocks Pier, including snack bar, tackle shop and bathhouse, all of which went in a single piece.

“For weeks afterward,” one resident recalls, “They were finding pieces of the pier from the beach to Tarpon Springs.” The hurricane even altered the area’s coastal geography — it filled in the Dunedin Pass with sand, meaning Clearwater Beach boaters no longer could use the channel to get to the Gulf of Mexico.

Total damages to man-made property in Florida were estimated at $213-million.

I was the marketing director at a Tampa Bay psychiatric hospital.  The storm surge rolled up the Hillsborough River, which ran through the hospital’s backyard. The county decided we needed to evacuate the hospital to a high school on higher ground. Did I mention it was a 48-bed psychiatric hospital?

All hands were on deck.  Off-shift employees showed up, and we loaded patients in two school buses. The terrifying part of the hurricane for me was the school bus ride there.  The wind whipped around the bus.  Would it tip over?

I cannot remember the name of the school we went to, but school employees cooked meals. I stayed at work for three days helping out with patients as I could, and dealing with the occasional media showing up. Considering how awful it could have been, the patients — for the most part — handled it as an adventure. Our physicians had a harder time because several other hospitals in Tampa shipped patients to northern and outlying hospitals.

We had it easy compared to Tampa General, the then-600 bed tertiary hospital located on Davis Island near downtown Tampa.  The hospital, according to an old newspaper story, evacuated 520 patients to area higher-ground hospitals on August 31, 1985 (31 years ago today.)

We discharged some patients to home after the 3-day stint at the school.  Our hospital’s lower level was unusable for several weeks.  The CEO and maintenance staff toured the bottom level after the hurricane passed.  Broken windows and doors from the force of the surge allowed snakes, a small alligator, and numerous river fish a visitor’s pass. We were waiting for State Board or Joint Commission to walk in the front door, but they had larger fish to fry with med/surg hospitals suffering the same fate.

Our condo in North Tampa suffered no damage; I finally went home after a marathon-72 hour shift. Tampa Bay was a wreck for weeks. I’m not sure what was in my mind when I planned my retreat on Labor Day weekend. Next time I’m headed for the Panhandle.


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