By now you’ve heard about the storm that tore through Cedar Key a few nights back. What started out as a small Tropical Depression, gained some strength into a Tropical Storm and moved up to full blown CAT 1 Hurricane Hermine made for a night we’ll NEVER forget.
Yes, Cindy and I became two of those people you read about in the newspaper while sipping your morning coffee, shake your head and usually think aloud “What a couple of Idiots!”
In our 6 years in Cedar Key, almost 15 years of living in Florida, we’ve ridden out a bunch of storms, multiple Hurricanes and the weekly crazy squalls that blow through. So when they called this one “Just a Tropical Storm that could bring in some high tides“, we hunkered down, stocked up on drinks, ice and some dry goods like most Floridians do. We packed up a few things, moved some valuables to higher, more protected ground and hosted a Hurricane Party the night of the storm.
We had plenty of things to Celebrate. Our cozy little Studio had just purchased a full Liquor License and we couldn’t wait to have all our friends and Cedar Key locals over to 2nd Street for some drinks. We took delivery of a new Glass Door Merchandiser from Coca-Cola and our Liquor Rep from Southern Spirits made a special delivery just to make sure we’d have a full bar for the Labor Day weekend.
With the Weather Channel constantly on in the background, town was abuzz with activity to fill sandbags, board up some lower windows and go about the rituals one does while preparing for a storm. The town is very good about pulling together and making sure your neighbor has everything they need. If you’ve never lived in a Coastal Area, then you wouldn’t understand that this practice can become very tedious and almost annoying when you put aside your daily work, work that would normally produce an income to fill sandbags, board up windows, install storm shutters and load a cargo trailer with items that could potentially be ruined by flood waters. 99% of the time, you spend a day or two doing all of this, only to have a storm that peters out and everything was done for nothing, then have a few days of undoing all your prepreations. After a 4th or 5th time of doing this, each time you do a little less and boast “This isn’t even worth it!”
Cindy and I both kept saying to one another “If it moves up to a full blown Hurricane, we’ll leave.” The small Tropical Storms usually bring in some waves, which aren’t all that common for our normally mellow section of coastline. Maybe the streets hold a bit of water and people get upset when gawkers come in from the surrounding communities to see the waves and flooding and they end up creating a wake as they drive down the flooded out city streets. A few days later, the streets have been thoroughly cleaned and its back to business as usual.
So you can see where our thought process was when we said “We’ll just ride out this storm and hopefully it misses us.”
As the night grew on and the winds, rain and warnings grew stronger, you could cut the tension in the air. Town was basically shut down and our little Studio was really the only business still open. The afternoon high tide brought in about a foot of water and like usual, all of us laughed saying “See, that wasn’t all that bad!” The streets flooded out, we boasted that it was another false alarm and everyone went home to the comforts of their dry homes.
We knew the evening/early morning 3am High Tide was going to be bigger than the afternoons, and that was when the storm surge was going to be making landfall, but all of us figured since the afternoon High Tide had only brought in some minor flooding to the streets, the sandbagging and preparations would save us……Boy were we wrong!
With everyone gone, Cindy and I were getting ready for bed and making sure a few last minute things were buttoned up. Our Studio is zoned Dual Use, so we could live in it if we wanted to. We bought a Murphy Bed awhile back, so on days that we’re working here till late in the night, we can just pull down the bed, sleep for a few hours and go back to work come morning. This comes in very handy from time to time and tonight we figured we’d stay in the Studio rather than drive out to our house which is 6 miles off the island and up on stilts. (Yeah, we’re those idiots that stay in the storm rather than go to higher ground??)
We had also previously talked to our good friends Heath and Jolie. They live a few houses down from us, but in a stones throw away, the road rises and their house sits about 15-20′ higher on a hill. So they had said before they went home from the Hurricane Party “Remember, if it gets bad, just walk up to our place. We’ll leave the front door unlocked and you can stay in the spare bedroom.” Nothing to worry about! We have all our stuff thought out and an exit plan.
Fast forward a few hours. Around midnight, neither of us have slept a wink. A few locals would walk by now and then in shin deep water doing what Floridians do during a storm. The tide was slowly coming in and the rain was coming down in buckets at this point. Winds had picked up to the point you could hear the buildings groaning under its stress. When the last news crew pulled up out front and got out of their car in shin deep water, they knocked on the door and asked if they could do an interview with us. They said we were the only thing around that looked open and now that the storm had been upgraded to a CAT 1 Hurricane, they couldn’t believe we were still here.
Cindy and I sheepishly looked at one another with that “Oh Shit” look and wondered what we were doing.
We talked about the fact that Jim Cantore had been our first customer of the day. We had officially been open for one full day and had a whopping total of $30 in sales….Makes it all worth it right? I’m not sure if it’s a good sign, or a really bad one when the first customer in your bar is a news reporter known around the world for his coverage of storm ravaged towns.
They thanked us, packed up and headed off to higher ground.
We watched the water rise a bit more and the current go from a slow moving stream, to a raging rapped as the ocean basically came ashore.
We slowly moved things up on top of other things. Wooden tables that would be able to survive standing water became the ultimate JENGA contest. Another hour into the storm and going outside meant being pelted with a driving rain that actually hurt. Each time we’d say “It’s not going to come any higher“….and we’d stack a few more delicate items higher atop other pieces of furniture. Electronics got unplugged, we kept walking around doing a once over of the Studio moving and rearranging items to what we thought would make them safe.
And then the inevitable scream came from the back of the building as I was standing at the front door saying “It’s up to the door frame!”
The back of our building faces the Gulf of Mexico which is one block away. We had been watching out the back door off and on seeing waves coming over what was 1st Street. When the tide was so high that the waves were hitting the back of the building, the water started seeping in through the walls and floor. Wildly enough, we never had water come in through our doors which were all boarded up, but when you have it just coming in through a tile floor, there is not much you can do.
At first, this was 100% my fault. The building has a custom made bin in the laundry room with a sump pump built in. This is supposed to be hooked to a 12volt battery that ejects the water outside in the event of a flood. As it started and was doing its job, Cindy was yelling at me when the water was coming in faster than the pump could eject it. For some reason, this was my fault.
Earlier in the day, she had asked me to go out to our house and pick up the Shop-Vac so if we flooded, we’d be able to vacuum up the water. She started yelling at me when she asked where it was, and I told her I hadn’t grabbed it.
I finally looked at her, grabbed her by the shoulders and said “Look, water is coming in from the walls, we’re two hours away from High Tide and you’re yelling at me thinking a small sump pump that can’t keep up with a record flood is my fault. A Shop-Vac would be useless at this point, where would we put the water once we vacuum it up? The water is lapping at the side of the building, do we open up the doors and allow more water in to dump out the water we just vacuumed up?”
I think that sunk in and she stopped yelling at me. No amount of pump, vacuum or ANYTHING was going to stop this from happening. So we kept stacking things up like we were competing in the JENGA Olympics.
At first the water was crystal clear and only covering a inch or so on the floor. We pulled the Murphy Bed down and put the dogs up there so they’d have a safe spot. We told them to go to bed and they both listened perfectly. Amazingly enough, we’re both those type of people that worry more about our dogs than we do about the thousands of dollars of artwork and furniture that’s about to get ruined.
We both kept saying “This isn’t so bad, we can squeegee it out in the morning and we’ll know next time to leave town.”
It was when the water inside the building started coming up close to our knee’s when Cindy said “It’s time, lets walk up to Heath and Jolie’s with the dogs!”
We grabbed our Go-Bag we had made up with a change of clothes, some emergency supplies and personal items and started to put the harnesses on the dogs. With the dogs in our arms, we looked out the front door and both realized the worst had happened. The water was raging so fast across the intersection of D Street and 2nd Street, the intersection we’d have to cross carrying dogs in waist deep water, that we had missed our chance at escape.
Cindy said “I think we can do it if we just walk slow!”
Just then, we saw a dock piling, about 12 inches in diameter float past at about 10mph. Behind it was a 80 gallon water heater bobbing like a fishing bobber just waiting for a fish to bite. I looked at Cindy and said “Nope, I’m not risking us walking across that with the dogs in our arms. If one of us looses our footing, falls into the water, the dogs will get swept away too fast for us to grab them.”
She looked at me like I had just told her I was going to remove her two front teeth with a set of rusty pliers and said “So this is it, we’re those idiots who are stuck and stranded in their building because we didn’t leave when we had the chance!?”
All I could do was nod my head in agreement and much to our dismay we put the dogs back on the bed.
I would have been fine with waiting out the night standing in knee deep water UNTIL we heard the gurgling sound coming up from the toilets. This meant the pressure from the ground water had gotten so much the sewers were backing up. OMG! This is when it got bad. Cindy started yelling at me again and at this point, I didn’t blame her! We were still an hour away from High Tide so the water was still coming up.
With nothing else to do, we pulled down the attic steps, grabbed some pillows off the bed, our Go-Bag and a few dozen bottled waters and hoisted the dogs up into the attic.
Once up there safely, Cindy said “You have to go back down there and find some alcohol, some bleach or some sort of disinfectant! We’re both covered with water that came out of a sewer, we’ll probably both need to go on a round of antibiotics come tomorrow morning if we survive this ordeal!”
Just then I thought I heard someone yell from the front of the building!
WTF? Is someone out there in this water? I walked down the ladder and saw what looked like a boat at our front door! They flashed a light a few times into the building and I flashed my light back at them. I climbed down the attic ladder and trudged through the slop to the front of the building. Heath was standing in his Boston Whaler and said “Excuse my boat, it’s normally stored under my deck and it’s a bit dirty, but go grab Cindy and the Dogs and lets go to my house!” That’s a personal joke between us because if you knew Heath, he’s very OCD about being clean and you could eat off of any of his boats they’re always kept so clean.
I yelled for Cindy to put her boots back on and grab the dogs, the Mayor was here to rescue us.
In a short time, and none of it was pretty or eloquent, we got the dogs down the stairs, who up to this point had both been saints. For some reason, when Little thought Honey was going for a boat ride and she wasn’t the first one on the boat, the tiny 3lb terror kept trying to jump out of our arms to attack Honey to show her that even though we’re in a Panic Situation and full on rescue mode, Little was still the Alpha Dog and should have been on the boat first. This had all of us laughing pretty hard at how silly this whole situation was even though it was pretty scary at the same point.
As we crossed the street, Heath pointed towards the Gulf of Mexico and said hold on, we have another ice machine coming at us at a pretty strong ramming speed. The little Yamaha 4hp motor pushed us through the swift current fast enough that we missed the encounter with the ice machine and soon enough, we were on high ground one block away.
We walked into Jolie’s living room at 3am to find her and her mother covering the floor with their life’s photographs as they were trying to dry them out. Apparently their basement/storage room had flooded out with chest deep water. Something that had never happened in a house that’s well over 100 years old. Like us, they had a sump pump built into the basement in the event of a flood, but nothing could keep in front of this amount of water. The boxes of photographs from their daughters childhood were scattered over the floor. It was heartbreaking to see.
Cindy thanked Heath for the rescue, thanked Jolie for the warm, dry house and asked if she could take a shower to wash off the funk covering her legs. She vanished into the bathroom and Heath asked if I wanted to go for a ride with him in the boat? Heath also works at Drummond Community Bank in town and his phone kept getting notified that the banks silent alarm was going off. He said he needed to go check on it at least to make sure the windows and doors were still intact.
So we headed back out into the wind which was at its peak at this point. I think at one time, the little Yamaha 4hp outboard couldn’t push the boat faster than the wind was hitting our bow. We sat still while the motor kept going, and looking beside us, I think we actually started going backwards. Heath and I just hunkered down and kept at it.
We motored down 2nd street dodging debris that was EVERYWHERE. Ice machines, gas cans, storage bins, dock pilings……heck, entire docks were floating down the streets! I don’t think there was anything that could withstand Mother Natures fury when she comes ashore like this.
We checked the bank which had about 3′ of water in it, but all the windows, the front door and the safe door were intact, so that was good. We drove by every building we could, and as Heath turned down C Street to head towards the marina, we both realized that wasn’t a good idea. The wind coming off the Gulf at this point was STRONG. I was worried if we got caught up in a wave or a stiff current, that little 4hp wouldn’t be able to bring us back into the safety of the protected area of 2nd Street. I mean who thinks that boating down Main Street is safe to begin with in the middle of a hurricane, but I know it felt safer than being anywhere near the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
The sounds you could hear across town is something I’ll never forget. Huge portions of docks, decks and pilings were floating and banging into things. Buildings groaning, the wind was whistling off the powerlines that were whipping and swinging like jump ropes. Luckily for our little joy ride the rain had let up enough that we didn’t feel like we were being stung by a horde of bees.
When it did start to come down again, we turned around and headed back to the safety of his house.
We tied the boat off to a street sign, hosed ourselves off outside before going into the house, I showered as soon as we told the girls about what town looked like, then I went to bed. By this point it was around 4:30am. I was utterly EXHAUSTED. There is something about stress that just knocks all energy out of your body. When the adrenaline is pumping, you don’t notice it, but when it leaves and you know you’re safe, its like you were just injected with a sedative. I wanted to look at my phone as Cindy kept checking in on Facebook to see what everyone else in town was posting about their safety or their businesses and homes. There was nothing good to report. Pretty much every business in town was hit, some demolished. One business was on fire as we laid there with people battling it in waist deep water trying to put it out and keep it from moving to surrounding buildings.
When we thought about the bigger picture, we both held one another and said a prayer that we had gotten by with only dirty water flooding our Studio. We were lying in a warm, dry bed listening to friends talk in the other room, friends that would go out in 100mph winds in a boat to keep us from having to sleep in our attic.
That is when you know you are blessed. We might be idiots, but God was watching out for us at least. Or gave us friends you keep in your prayers every night.
The next morning, I was up as the sun rose. I felt like I was extremely hungover and I hadn’t even drank anything the night before. I think that amount of adrenaline surging through your body taxes your system something awful.
I left Cindy sleeping with the dogs knowing we had a huge day ahead of us. I grabbed my camera and went outside. The water had receded and what was left in it’s path was nasty.
Everywhere you looked was debris. It looked like a child had dumped over a 5 gallon bucket of Lego’s, but the Lego’s were docks, propane tanks, and not the kind that go on your BBQ Grill, the big kind that supply and entire house or restaurant. I looped through town and down onto Dock Street. It was very emotional to see friends businesses ruined. Pretty much everything in town had damage to it. Some easily fixable, some will take months if not longer to bring back to where they were two days ago.
By the time I made it back to the Studio, I think I was in shock. I walked around for at least a half hour just looking around not even knowing where to begin.
Fast forward another 12 hours. Cindy and I spent the entire day cleaning. It’s not often you bring a hose into your house and start from one end with the hose on full and a few friends with push brooms and squeegee’s pushing out dirty, muddy water. Friends showed up to help. Friends brought over supplies, cases of bottled water, dehumidifiers, food, extra Shop-Vac’s……How does one go through life without good friends?
Around dinner time, we were exhausted. We’d slept a few hours in the last two days and had spent the entire day wet and sweating in the extreme heat and humidity. When we finally thought we’d cleaned the building enough that we could close the doors and turn on the A/C, Heath’s sister Ida Marie drove up from Tampa with enough food to feed a dozen people. We walked up to their house and gorged ourselves on BBQ.
With full bellies, we loaded up and headed out to the house where we planned on showering, changing into fresh dry clothes and sleeping for a full night.
When we pulled up, we realized the house was out of power. Don’t ask me how the power is strung past this house to get to Cedar Key, and Cedar Key has power, but this house doesn’t, but it was hot inside the house. We had no water to shower off the days amount of mud that was under our nails.
So we loaded the dogs back up, and headed back to the Studio.
As we got there, we were both arguing over who was going to be able to shower first. Cindy went to open a cupboard to grab a towel and realized that the lower cupboards were still filled with water!!! This meant we spent the next few hours vacuuming cupboards, wiping stuff down and next thing you know, its 2am and we’re still up cleaning. Wow, what a few days!
This morning, we have volunteers walking around town in pouring down rain picking up scattered debris and hauling it off. Groups of school kids spending their Labor Day weekend to help a community they don’t even live in. What a great area we live in, storms and all! God Bless this area, and when you go to bed tonight, say a prayer for everyone in the path of these storms.