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Unworried, but wary, of lurking hurricane

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2002

It appears now that the path of Hurricane Isidore will not bring it to Tampa Bay. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I am disappointed.

It appears now that the path of Hurricane Isidore will not bring it to Tampa Bay. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I am disappointed.

It must be my thirst for melodrama.

Tracking a storm is exciting in the same strange way rubbernecking at a car wreck is: It could have been you who was hurt.

In the case of a hurricane looming, it still could be you.

This thinking sounds downright perverse. But I asked Michele Baker, the emergency management chief for Pasco County, if she ever had ever experienced this sense of excitement. Yes, she said, although she didn't like admitting it.

As the weekend began, Baker was checking and rechecking the weather. The storm was moving toward the southwest, toward the Yucatan Peninsula and away from the United States.

But Baker wasn't letting down her guard. It is rare for a gulf hurricane to stay on a westerly course, she said. "You can never turn your back on a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico."

Michele Baker knows of what she speaks. She was once a flight attendant and later a secretary, but life has taken her to amazing places. She was the hurricane coordinator for Dade County when Andrew hit in 1992 and came to Pasco the following year.

So I believe her when she says it's time to check my disaster supplies kit, to make sure I have water and batteries and canned goods. This goes with my sense of excitement. You get a rush from the sense of danger lurking.

And then I think she's overreacting.

This is true for a lot of us, latecomers to Florida who have never endured a hurricane. We read the old stories of hurricanes in Florida, and they have a somebody-else quality to them that makes us turn the page.

Now comes Isidore. If the storm skips us, the belief that we are hurricane-proof will only get stronger.

But Tampa Bay is pushing the odds. We've had more good luck than we might reasonably deserve. It's been a little more than 80 years since we suffered a direct hit.

Isidore was almost 200 miles wide when Michele Baker and I talked. She was expecting the storm to get even bigger. "You're going to have a strong hurricane and weak steering, which means it's going to do all kinds of crazy loops before it's through," she said.

"Some (predictions) take it to Mexico, some take it to Texas, some take it to Louisiana, and some take it to Florida."

Take your pick.

This means we could be watching the storm come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Boredom may set in before Isidore breaks up.

We have had a storm with this hard-to-predict, lingering quality, brush by. In 1985, Hurricane Elena stalled in the gulf just west of Tampa Bay and gave us a drenching.

I remenber Elena because I spent the night in a newsroom office, where several of us who were to report on the storm gathered. We were a miserable tangle of arms and legs on the floor. Sleep was impossible, while lightning flashed and rain pelted the windows.

I hate to admit this, too: I was scared then.

So go get your peanut butter and canned tuna, your flashlight batteries and prescriptions and find a place that will take the dog. Do what Michele Baker says. Take Isidore seriously, even though doing so may end up a dry run.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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