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After the storm

March 13, 1993 is still vividly clear in the minds of residents along the Hernando coast who were caught off guard.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Mette Hahn, 67, reflects on what happened March 13, 1993, when she lost both her husband, William, and her house.
Mette Hahn keeps her important papers in a portable filing cabinet the size of a tackle box.

If the water of the Gulf of Mexico begins to rise, she said, "I pack that and my dog, and I go. ... I don't care about anything else. It's just material things, and material things don't mean anything to me now."

A decade ago this week, Hernando County was hit with a storm that is distinguished now by the fact that it seemed so undistinguished before it struck. Unlike the hurricanes that are the state's usual natural menace, forecasters never gave this storm a name.

Sustained high winds from a late-winter storm created a tidal surge that, between 4 and 8 a.m. on Saturday, March 13, 1993, ambushed coastal residents and caused more property damage than any weather event in Hernando County history. It flooded 1,300 houses. Hundreds of cars, inundated with saltwater, were totaled. Boats were carried into the gulf.

Several people who lived in the coastal communities hit hardest by the storm -- Aripeka, Hernando Beach and Pine Island -- revived their decade-old memories of the so-called no-name storm last week.

They dug up photographs and videotapes showing waves rolling through their neighborhoods and debris-strewn streets the water left behind. They spoke with awe about the power of nature. Some of them still harbor hard feelings about the county Development Department. Almost all of them remain grateful for the help they received from volunteers and emergency workers -- and for their survival.

But perhaps nobody lost as much in the storm, or gained as much perspective, as Hahn.

The flood damaged her home in Aripeka so severely that she was forced to demolish it. And, as her husband tried to ferry family members and a neighbor to safety in his fishing boat, he died of a heart attack -- the only storm-related death in Hernando County.

"I lost the most valuable thing I could lose, my husband," said Hahn, 67, who lives in a house next to the lot where her old house stood.

The main lesson she learned, she said, is "as long as the family is okay, nothing else matters."

They had to leave

Hahn's husband, William "Leprechaun" Hahn -- a truck driver from New Jersey -- had always hated the idea of retiring to Florida, his widow said. In 1986, she finally talked him into visiting the state, including a stop in Aripeka.

"He came down for the weekend and bought the house. He loved it," she said.

His nickname suited him, she said, because he was "a little guy . . . about 5-foot-3," because he was Irish and because of a generosity that could seem like magic.

Though a nondrinker, William Hahn's best friends liked to sip beer near the Osowaw Boulevard bridge in Aripeka. He regularly invited them back to his house on Sunset Vista Drive for a pot of fish soup -- "He made the greatest fish soup you ever tasted," his widow said -- and offered them beds when they needed them.

On March 12, meteorologists forecast heavy rain and the high winds that would eventually reach speeds of nearly 100 mph in Hernando. They did not expect the tidal surge that crested nearly 10 feet higher than normal high tide. As a result, neither did residents like the Hahns.

Because the Hahns were mostly worried about the wind, William Hahn lashed his fishing boat to the ground and insisted that his daughter and her 7-year-old son, who lived in a mobile home in Pasco County, stay overnight in Aripeka.

The Hahns' daughter, Lori, was the first one who noticed water on the floor early on the morning of March 13, though she initially thought it was a puddle of dog urine. Once she realized water from the gulf was seeping under the doors, she woke her parents.

After the family lifted the boy from the kitchen sink to the top of the refrigerator to keep him from the rising flood, they decided they had to leave. William Hahn waded outside to remove the web of lines he had used to tether his boat.

"It took him about 15 minutes to untie it," Mette Hahn said.

Once the family and two dogs were aboard, and after turning the boat to pick up a neighbor, William Hahn steered the boat toward a stilt house at the end of the street. As Mrs. Hahn grabbed for the stairs, the front of the boat suddenly veered away, she said.

"That's when he had his heart attack," she said. "He looked at me and said, 'I love you' and closed his eyes."

Mrs. Hahn was determined to stay in Aripeka, she said, even though the storm had washed away the concrete blocks on the back wall of her house and the county condemned it. A county worker told her the heavy damage meant the house had to be demolished, so she hired a man with a bulldozer to do so.

Afterward, she realized that neighbors whose homes also had been condemned were able to rebuild. Either she was misinformed by the county, she said, or her neighbors were helped by their friendship with a county commissioner.

"They got their homes uncondemned," she said.

She bought the house next to her old lot when she was told it would take several months to get a permit for another septic tank. While the house she now lives in was being restored, the man who owned the stilt house across the street allowed her to live there for free.

Such acts of generosity helped hold the community together after the storm, said Carl Norfleet, who owns a bait store in Aripeka and whose family has lived in the village for more than 100 years.

"There was always somebody brewing up tea or making sandwiches," Norfleet said.

That seemed to keep people tethered there after the flood, he said, and Aripeka has probably changed less in the past decade than any of the county's other coastal communities.

"It's still isolated and secluded, and that's pretty good," Norfleet said.

Hahn stayed because of her friends in the community, because some of her grandchildren live nearby and because her husband, as he requested, was cremated and his ashes scattered in the gulf.

She pointed out the deck she has built over the canal behind her house.

"I still go out and talk to him," she said. "Not every day. But when I get stressed out, I still go out there and talk to him."

Practical lessons

The time, 6:57 a.m., is documented by the footage Mary Ann Ryan shot the morning of the storm. She aimed a video camera at waves washing into the bottom of her stairwell and said what people all along the coast were thinking at that moment.

"I don't know why we weren't adequately warned of this," she said.

"They said 'some coastal flooding,' " her husband, Bill Cope, said last week as he watched the tape.

"Does that look like some coastal flooding?"

Cope, 66, a former architect who now owns a consulting business, was attracted to Pine Island as instantly as William Hahn was to Aripeka.

Cope had spent most of his life in Northern cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Ottawa in Canada. In the late 1970s, he met a woman friend at Pine Island for a memorable weekend of sunbathing, sailing, drinking and eating.

"That was the first time I'd ever had stone crabs," he said. "From then on, I spent all the time here I could."

He bought his current home, just north of Alfred A. McKethan Park, in 1984. He had no idea how vulnerable it was to flooding, he said, until the no-name storm suddenly hit.

Meteorologists would later explain that the sustained winds from the west had pushed water toward the Gulf Coast throughout the previous day. Coincidentally, a massive thunderstorm from the south pumped in more moisture.

The closest comparable event, Carl Norfleet said, came in March 1932.

"That was the flood when I was growing up," he said.

Sixty-one years later, Bill Cope said, 5 feet of water poured into his house, and the spray from the waves hit the eaves of the roof of his two-story house, nearly 20 feet above the ground.

Because they did not know when the water would stop rising, the Copes, like many other Pine Island residents, were evacuated by a Coast Guard helicopter. The pilot held the chopper steady in the high winds while they climbed into a rescue basket from a narrow deck on the side of their house.

"I gained new respect for those guys," Cope said of the Coast Guard pilots.

When they were allowed to return the Monday after the storm, they found the water had washed away the concrete blocks on one corner of the first floor. Much of the second floor was unsteadily supported by a couple of horizontal wooden beams.

"It was cantilevered that way for 21/2 days. I still can't believe it," Cope said.

All homeowners were subject to the "50 percent rule," which stated that a resident whose home had been hit with damage worth less than half its total value was allowed to rebuild. Cope narrowly qualified, he said, thanks partly to a generous interpretation by the county.

He rebuilt to make sure his home would never be washed away again. Many of the lessons he learned from the storm, he said, were practical ones.

The new walls are reinforced with so many steel bars, he said, the joke among inspectors was that he was erecting a bank vault. The first floor is covered with tile, the inside walls with stucco that is impervious to water damage. It is furnished with inexpensive wicker furniture.

"It's basically disposable," he said.

The homes built after the storm, he said, were generally larger and more expensive than their predecessors. More of the owners live elsewhere for part of the year, he said, and the island has lost some of the relaxed friendliness that first seduced him.

But he loves it for, among other things, the views. On one side, he said, he and his wife can watch the sun rise as they have breakfast. They go to the other side for the sunset -- "about martini time."

He lived in other cities because they offered professional opportunities. He bought previous houses to refurbish and sell at a higher price.

"This is the only house I bought for me," he said. "This is where I want to live."

Moving on

Bill and Helen Browning said many people remember the flooding but forget the power of the no-name storm's winds.

By 9:30 on Friday night, they said, they noticed they had to yell to be heard above the rattling windows; the roof on their home in Hernando Beach creaked so loudly it seemed it would be blown off, said Bill Browning, the football coach at Hernando High School, and who for 10 years held the same job at Springstead High.

After one vicious gust -- probably a waterspout or small tornado -- sheared the limbs of a palm tree in their front yard, they woke their two children -- Brandon, then 12, and Brooke, who was 9 -- and helped them move to the large, sunken bathtub they considered the most protected part of the house. The children fell asleep, said the Brownings, both 47, but they did not -- not that night or for several nights afterward.

"I don't think I slept for a week," said Bill Browning said.

When Browning first saw the water seeping under the door, he still considered the wind the biggest problem.

"I yelled to get some towels," he said. Then he saw water flowing through the cracks on either side of the door. A short time later, "we started to hear the waves breaking on the back of the house," Helen Browning said. "That's when we knew we were really in trouble."

Because of concerns about the children's safety, they decided the family had to try to make it to the stilt home of their neighbor on Gulfview Drive, Scott Nicoletti.

The family waded in chest-high water, with Bill Browning carrying his daughter, and Helen Browning allowing her son to hold onto her tightly.

Once the family was safe, Bill Browning and Nicoletti swam across the street to check on an elderly couple. The man was in a wheelchair on the couch. Both he and his wife decided it was less frightening to stay than to move.

"The terror in their eyes was something you never forget," Bill Browning said.

The sights from the next day are also engraved in the family's memories.

Their China cabinet and a doll's crib ended up in their yard, as did their floating dock and a boat trailer belonging to someone living several houses down the street. The concrete-block wall in back of their home had collapsed, which led to the most shocking realization of all.

"It's the weirdest feeling to realize that you have no house," Helen Browning said.

The family rented a home, with the help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while they built a new stilt home on their lot.

They lived there for three more years until moving to a house east of Brooksville.

Many people in Hernando Beach made the same decision, said Mary and Sandy Walke, who have lived in Hernando Beach since 1986.

They sat next to sliding-glass windows in the rear of their home last week, 20 feet above the waves below. The appeal of living on the coast is obvious from this perch, and it has driven up property values, tempting many longtime residents to sell.

"In the last five years, we have lost all our neighbors," Sandy Walke said.

The Brownings left for other reasons, including Bill Browning's move from Springstead to Hernando. But mostly, Helen Browning said, she was always a little bit spooked by memories of the storm.

"I never felt comfortable," she said.

"Even when we had a regular thunderstorm, I would have to go inland. I'd go to a store or something because I couldn't stand the wind and the lightning."

-- Dan DeWitt can be reached at 754-6116 or at dewitt@sptimes.com .

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