By ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001
PUNTA GORDA -- Just when they thought they had seen everything Tropical Storm Gabrielle had to offer, the walking catfish showed up.
"Have you seen them?" asked Josh Putter, director of Charlotte Regional Medical Center. "They really do walk."
The 208-bed hospital was rendered an island by the overflowing Peace River, which also forced the evacuation of 60 Punta Gorda residents.
Charlotte and Lee counties, at the southern edge of Gabrielle as it made landfall in Venice, were hardest hit by flooding. To the north of the storm's center, in Sarasota and Manatee counties, the bulk of the storm damage was wrought by wind.
Much of downtown Punta Gorda was thigh-deep in water, and maintenance workers at the hospital ran pumps and piled sandbags around doors to keep the water out. Putter said the flooding did not affect patient care. But it sure did make it inconvenient.
Rose Heilmann, a pharmacy technician, looked down uncertainly at the brown flood water. In her hands was a tub filled with medication that patients across the street needed. Her legs swathed in garbage bags, she took a tentative step, and retreated. Who could blame her? Refugee fire ants floated on the surface, and the smell of the water was ominous.
"I'll wait for the hospital truck," she said.
In Charlotte, authorities used rescue vehicles and a military transport truck to take people from several dozen homes to shelters.
"It's a nuisance flood," said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte emergency management director. "These are places that historically and repeatedly flood."
The problem was exacerbated by the uncertain nature of the storm, he said. The county got only 5 to 7 inches of rain, but it came in a matter of hours.
In Lee County, portions of the roofs of two Fort Myers Beach businesses were ripped off by high winds. Power was out for 30,000 residents. Between 10 and 15 roads were closed because of flooding, and scattered neighborhoods had yards that were covered with water, said Booch DeMarchi, Lee County spokesman.
"It was mostly a water problem rather than a wind problem," DeMarchi said.
Along the beaches in Sarasota and Manatee counties, high winds knocked down dozens of trees and caused power outages for 100,000 people. There were more than 200 lines down in the Sarasota and Bradenton areas, according to Florida Power & Light. At Mote Marine Laboratory, which is on a barrier island off Sarasota, they were prepared.
Derek Templeton, facilities director, had ensured the research aquarium had enough generators to keep tank pumps going should they lose power.
"Life support for the animals is a critical part of our efforts," he said. "We're all wired."
In Longboat Key, Claire Lasota was making preparations of her own. The 57-year-old waitress, home from work for the day, put a 12-pack of Natural Light and a 2-liter bottle of chardonnay on the counter of the Longboat Key Food Mart.
"What else am I going to do?" she asked as the wind howled outside.
-- Information from the Sarasota-Herald Tribune and the Fort Myers News-Press were used in this report.