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Our luck comes with a sobering wakeup call

By MARY JO MELONE
Published August 15, 2004

So this is what good fortune looks like: a sudden bend to the right of a bow-shaped line on a weather map.

And this is what good fortune feels like: a guilty sense of relief that comes at somebody else's expense.

Here in Tampa Bay, I almost feel apologies are due the people of Charlotte County and other parts of the state that suffered the full force of Hurricane Charley. We have few tree limbs to sweep up. No demolished mobile home parks, no downed power lines, and most of all, nobody's loved ones missing or dead. We get to relax. They get to call in the National Guard.

People in the affected areas will be patching up things for weeks, if not months, and talking about it for years. How could Charley change its speed and direction so fast and catch so many off guard?

We ought to have a deeper understanding of the dangers and unpredictability of hurricanes now, but there's a worrisome chance Tampa Bay will draw another conclusion. Next time, and you know there will be a next time, we might conclude the danger is overrated, the forecasters are crying wolf, and the hassle of getting ready - the hassle we just experienced - isn't worth it.

We endured such anxieties and knocked ourselves out getting ready. That arrow on the weather map was heading our way, no doubt about it. We were sure this was going to be The Big One, the way Andrew was in south Florida a decade ago. Tampa Bay's luck was about to run out.

So we waited in lines for duct tape, water, generators. We made sure we had enough gas in the tank.

We filled shelters, moved in with relatives. We jammed bridges as we evacuated.

And for what? In much of the bay area, we got a rainstorm that hardly qualified as a typical summer shower, like the ones that briefly thundered through my West Tampa neighborhood Sunday.

It's hard to admit this, given the destruction and loss of life in Punta Gorda and elsewhere, but I had the disturbing feeling that I had been cheated out of a thrill when Charley turned away from us. The flip side of fear is excitement, and getting ready set off a strange, constant tingle within me. Now all that's left is a feeling of letdown.

Now it's time to drag the outdoor furniture back to the deck and contemplate what to do with all that peanut butter and jelly (the haute cuisine of hurricanes) and the size D flashlight batteries. Now it's time to put the plywood sheets back into the garage and to wonder - almost - what the fuss was about.

I would prefer to be wrong. I would prefer to believe that we won't lose whatever respect we have for hurricanes, despite Friday's extraordinary break.

I mean this especially for transplants (myself included) who live here in a kind of blessed ignorance. We have never experienced a serious hurricane, never heard a sliding glass door shatter, never witnessed a roof blow off, never watched the water carry a car away, never sought shelter in a bathroom deep inside the house. We need lessons in being Floridians - ideally dry ones, like this brush with Charley.

The weather forecast for the next several days in the bay area is as it always is this time of year: stiflingly humid, harsh sunshine interrupted by steel-colored clouds that unload a brief wallop of thunder, lightning and rain. Nothing more than that.

We can get back to our lives, while the people to our south don't even know where to start, and groups like the Red Cross are asking for cash donations to get through the crisis.

I don't live in an evacuation zone, so you could say I never had anything to worry about. But if you had talked to me Friday, you would have heard differently. I was as shook up as anyone then, and am relieved as anyone now in the bay area.

I'm writing this from an office at home. The phone works. So does the electricity. The food in the freezer hasn't gone bad. I never did need that ice I bought. Everything, ceiling to floor, is dry. My child is safe. So are my dog and cats.

What more could I wish for - except for the people unlucky enough to be in Charley's way to get help, and fast.

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

[Last modified August 15, 2004, 00:05:10]


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