Fears that will not wash away
By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
It came in the predawn darkness and blew across Florida with stunning ferocity. Hurricane-force winds. Hail. Driving rain. And, in coastal Pasco, devastating floods.
"It was semidark and I lived alone," said Sandy Justice, who was trapped by floodwaters in her Avery Street home until a neighbor helped her escape through a window. "I really thought that I was going to die."
When it was over, the March 13, 1993, "no-name storm" had forced the evacuation of almost 2,000 Pasco County residents and damaged about 8,000 homes here. There was one local death directly related to the storm: An Aripeka man died of a heart attack while helping evacuate neighbors.
Thursday marks the 10-year anniversary of the no-name storm. The shredded roofs, displaced docks and battered boats have long since been repaired. But even today traces of the worst storm to hit Pasco in 50 years remain.
There are physical reminders, like the scores of rebuilt homes along the coast that were raised on stilts to meet federal flood insurance requirements.
There are psychological reminders, like the goosebumps that break out among coastal residents whenever big storms roll in from the gulf.
The county's public services were forever changed as well: A professional emergency management team was created, satellite-linked flood gauges installed, neighborhood response teams formed.
And few people realize that the no-name storm resulted in a fundamental change in how Florida helps local officials prepare for disasters. After the no-name storm, legislators created a multimillion dollar disaster fund, Florida's first self-sustaining revenue source dedicated to disaster planning.
The sound of bullhorns
Sandy Justice stayed up late that night, concerned about a neighbor's cocker spaniel that lived primarily outdoors. She knew bad weather was coming, so she slept in a sweat suit.
At dawn she heard bullhorns.
By then, water was already in the house she rented on Avery Road in New Port Richey. She began piling her valuables onto what passed for high ground: the bed and the couch.
She stuffed her cat, Tigger, into a pillow case. ("For some reason, she always traveled well in a pillow case.") Justice then grabbed her mother's jewels, and her two dogs, Chloe and Brie.
By then the water was to her thighs, and the front door wouldn't budge against the strong current.
"I honestly thought that I was going to drown," she said.
Chloe floated by on a recliner.
From outside, a familiar voice boomed: "Break a window!"
It was her neighbor, David Hutt, and Justice did what he said. As she crawled through the window, Justice snagged her leg on a shard.
"There were people everywhere, and they were all in their night clothes," said Justice, now 52. "People were driving by, but nobody stopped to help."
She followed the throng toward the Burger King where U.S. 19 meets Main Street. She noticed blood.
The window's broken glass had punctured an artery in her leg. A stranger took her dogs. Another drove her to the hospital, where doctors stitched up the hole.
Ten years later, her breathing quickens when she talks about that dark morning.
"It's traumatic, even now," she said. "I still get this soft, gooey feeling inside of me."
A heavy toll
It took weeks to tally the damage. The storm ravaged a five-county area, but West Pasco, Pinellas and southern Hernando County suffered the most.
-- 237 homes were destroyed.
-- 5,320 homes received major damage.
-- 1,200 people sought safety in Red Cross shelters.
The no-name storm was an unusually violent frontal system. Spawned by a dangerous low-pressure system and a dual jet stream, the storm formed when arctic air from Canada carved across the nation and hit warm air over the Gulf of Mexico. The collision whipped the calm gulf waters into a 9-foot storm surge. Winds hit 90 mph.
In all, more than 14,000 homes were damaged in the Tampa Bay area. Statewide, 26 people were killed by the weather, which caused $500-million in property damage. An estimated 2-million Floridians were left without power. Pasco County residents and business owners received a combined $37.3-million in state and federal disaster aid.
"I was never much of a weather watcher before that, but I am now," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "I still get the shivers."
In bed, afloat
When Fay Morris went to bed March 12, the weather forecasters were warning residents along the North Suncoast of a severe line of thunderstorms, but that was about it.
"We really didn't think we had anything to worry about," she said.
She awoke about 4 a.m. to find her bed afloat.
Her husband, Butch, got up. There were 4 inches of water in the bedroom. Fay, huddled in blankets, stayed in bed. As the wind whistled, the water kept coming, fed by the estimated 9-foot storm surge.
Within minutes, the water was waist-high and the mattress had become a raft.
"I never got out of bed," Fay said. "I floated very close to the ceiling fan."
Except for a few rocking chairs, the flood ruined almost all of the Morrises' possessions. Their Aripeka home suffered extensive damage. A water-logged wall collapsed. Butch Morris' cabinet shop was a total loss. It took $60,000 and almost a year to rebuild.
Their cat, Patches, was found clinging to a nearby bush.
"It seems like a lifetime ago," Fay Morris said recently.
Was it BF, or AF?
As it was for many coastal residents, the no-name storm was a turning point in the lives of Denise and John Isaacson. It forced the Hudson family out of its home along Old Dixie Highway for nine months, and the flood waters either carried away or ruined most of their possessions.
But the storm has left an indelible mark on the family's psyche as well.
"We use it to date (events) in our lives," said Denise Isaacson. "Was that before the flood, or after the flood?"
Denise was up late the night of the storm, practicing the horns she was to play in a local production of Cabaret. The rain was driving hard when she quit for the night, and for a reason she still can't quite explain, she decided to pack up her instruments and store them away. Usually, she simply left them out for use the next day.
The instruments were some of the few possessions that survived unscathed.
"Some days, it's such a distant memory," she said of the storm. "But every year we mark the day, March 13. When you go through something as traumatic as that, it changes your life."
Denise is still amazed that she lived through it. The house quickly filled with 4 feet of water, and an electrical shock knocked her unconscious when a lamp fell into the flood water.
"It came up in a flash," she said. "There was no warning."
The storm turned Denise Isaacson into a weather-watcher, and the family is better prepared today to handle another emergency. They have a "flood plan" that they practice and review every hurricane season.
"There's not a day that goes by when I don't worry about the weather and storms," she said.
Planning for the next one
The no-name storm wasn't the biggest to hit Florida, especially considering that it came on the heels of Hurricane Andrew. But the storm, along with Andrew's devastation, was enough to provoke legislators into creating the Florida Emergency Preparedness and Assistance Trust Fund.
The program is funded by property insurance surcharges. Pasco's annual $103,000 share of the money allowed the county to hire a professional emergency staff.
Before the no-name storm, Pasco didn't have much in the way of disaster planning, said Michele Baker, Pasco's director of the Office of Emergency Management.
"When you don't have a lot of disasters, and you don't have a lot of staff, and you don't have a lot of funding, you obviously don't have much of a program," she said.
Today, Pasco is as ready as it can be to handle another no-name storm, said Baker and County Administrator John Gallagher.
County officials are most proud of their Community Emergency Response Teams, groups of neighborhood leaders who have been trained to help during the first 72 hours of a disaster.
Hundreds of local residents have received 24 hours of training in basic survival skills: firefighting, triage, first aid, search and rescue.
One of the loudest criticisms levied against public officials in the wake of the storm was that coastal residents had little warning of the storm surge that hit the coast after the squall line had passed.
Since then, Baker said, a new flood warning system has been put into place.
With the help of the University of South Florida and the National Weather Service, the county installed electronic flood gauges at the mouth of the Anclote River, at the Aripeka Bridge and at Brasher Park Beach in Port Richey. Another gauge is anchored to a buoy 25 miles out in the gulf.
The gauges are linked via satellite with the weather service and they're being used to help forecasters better predict the severity of nonhurricane storms.
"People look back and say, 'It couldn't have possibly been that bad,' " Baker said. "But it put (psychological) scars on people that they'll have for life."
No whiskey for John
John Dahlem rode out the storm tied to a tree.
Dahlem, known around Aripeka as "Whiskey John," was living at the time in the old fish camp where Yankee slugger Babe Ruth and boxing great Jack Dempsey used to visit. Dahlem ventured out into the teeth of the storm to check on a boat that was tied up behind his cabin.
In the few minutes that Dahlem was outside, the floodwater rushed in. He said recently that he knew from the creaking and banging that the old cabin "was coming down."
Right about that time, a coil of rope floated by. He grabbed it and lashed himself to a nearby palm tree.
When the sun came up, he was black and blue and his shoes were filled with rocks.
"It beat me up," Dahlem said of the hail, flood water and the debris it carried. "People asked me, 'Why didn't you swim?' Hell, where was I going to swim to?"
Dahlem now lives in a trailer across the street from the Norfleet's store, and he eeks out a living collecting scrap metal. One recent day, as he banged on a rusty air conditioning coil, he recalled the worst part of the storm:
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