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Tom Germond
Charley? To hell with hurricanes
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[Image]
Photo courtesy of the OSCEOLA NEWS-GAZETTE
Shown is downtown Kissimmee, which was damaged heavily by Hurricane Charley.
I guess I’ll never get rid of Hurricane Charley. I was asked by my friends and former co-workers at the Osceola News-Gazette to write about the storm from my perspective as assistant editor of that newspaper 10 years ago. August 13 marks the 10th anniversary of the storm, and the News-Gazette is publishing articles about the event.

I remember going to a political function Aug. 12, 2004, knowing that Hurricane Charley was likely to hit Kissimmee. I was immersed so much in the jokes and news tips that I didn’t think much about how we should cover Charley.

As the bands from Charley loomed overhead early the next afternoon, I began to sense that the storm had the potential to cause widespread damage.

Did it ever. Charley came hard and fast that evening, Friday, Aug. 13. It was a Category 4 storm when it hit the west coast. It was a Category 2 by time it made it to Kissimmee.

I woke up the next morning to find a 16-foot oak tree on the ground in my back yard, along with branches and other debris.

Sprawling oak trees, at maturity, are rightfully loved for their grace and shade. But in a storm such as Charley, they are dangerous instruments of the devil as they wreak havoc upon utility poles, houses, streets and other structures.

Walking through the neighborhood, I saw shredded roofs, mangled fences and fallen power lines. I’ll never forget the tired face on the woman sitting in a chair on her front porch. A look of disbelief, hopelessness.

After interviewing neighbors, I started to drive toward downtown Kissimmee, to assess the damage at the newspaper office.

My editor was on vacation in the backwoods of Alaska on a volunteer work project so I had to come up with a plan to cover Charley. I didn’t even own a cell phone then so I was out of touch with my staff and correspondents. Not sure if it would have made any difference, as cell phone service was limited, too.

I had to trust that journalists’ instincts would rule the day.

The damage to the office was minimal, just a crippled awning, but the power was out. Along Broadway, shattered glass from storefront windows filled the sidewalks.

I uttered a few curse words under my breath. God, what a mess. So many lives affected.

However, utility crews were already restoring power. Since our office was on the same grid as the police station’s, I was told, we should have service that Monday. Otherwise, God only knows when we’d be able to put out the paper – possibly three days late and useful to some readers only for catching bird droppings in a cage.

While I was downtown, I checked on a friend who lived nearby. She said she and her boys were OK, except for her old two-story house being unbearably hot. A big hug and good-byes. Then I went to a nearby mall where people were lining up for food and water from a state agency. Gov. Jeb Bush came through for Kissimmee.

Didn’t sleep well that Sunday. The steady hum of generators, the smell of rotting wood and the intense heat kept me awake half the night.

I met with my staff Monday morning, and we wasted little time in deciding upon assignments. Somebody would do the main story; others would do features, sidebars as we call them – as much as we can. Also important was to provide a list of agencies for people to call to get help.

The correspondents came through with plenty of photos. This was before any of us except the staff photographer had a digital camera so we had to take rolls of film to photo shops and drug stores to have them processed, if memory serves me right.

Everybody pitched in on the coverage, including the publisher. The destruction was unbelievable, from severed railroad crossing arms to crushed airplane hangars to houses left with no roofs and fallen trees everywhere. The phones rang constantly and I lost my temper when a receptionist patched through a call from a woman wanting to know whom she could call to have her fallen bushes removed.

Not now. Call back six weeks from now and maybe we can help you.

The power was still out in my house; I slept in the office for two nights – just to keep cool.

On Wednesday morning, I had to decide upon a headline, called the banner, which would run across the page. As I recall, it was “Charley, what a mess you made.” Probably not my best. In hindsight, I think the headline should have read, “Charley, you miserable S.O.B.”

We got the paper out, and we went out for drinks that Friday on the company, of course, as a reward for our hard work. I complimented the staff on the work they did. Thank God we’re done with that. To hell with hurricanes.

One of our staff members lost power for three weeks, as I recall. Others also had problems to take care of, thanks to Charley. Nevertheless, we did our jobs. I like to think we helped some people.

Lessons learned from a journalist’s standpoint? Maybe a few. Make sure you have plenty of gas. Call the people back who are worried about you, even if you’re busy. Don’t walk on water-soaked streets where power lines are down. Be safe and just do the best you can. Trust your employees to succeed.

After my experience with Charley, I had no desire to cover hurricanes again.

Then came Frances and Jeanne.

Tom Germond is executive editor of Tampa Bay Newspapers. Email him at tgermond@TBNweekly.com.
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