Storm-wary stock up
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
Taking a break from tying down boats, a marina employee pointed to two brown horizontal lines on a hallway wall. They showed how high the water had risen inside John's Pass Marina.
Behind him, a forklift moved boats to higher ground.
All over the Tampa Bay area, people woke up Saturday and checked the weather report. They went through a jumble of gut reactions: uncertainty, anxiety, skepticism, dread.
Some people, jaded by previous false alarms, were nonchalant about Hurricane Gordon. Others battened down hatches and went shopping. Grocery stores saw a run on bottled water, batteries, candles and canned goods.
The entire Suncoast may be on alert, but Saturday's forecasts put Citrus and Hernando counties especially close to ground zero. The storm's central core was expected to reach land tonight in the Big Bend region to the north.
"We've restocked the water aisle three times this morning," said Robert Watts, assistant manager at Publix in Crystal River. "We've got 11 pallets of water bottles just out on the floor right now, and they'll be gone soon."
Warnings of coastal flooding brought unwelcome memories of the no-name storm that damaged 18,000 homes along the Suncoast seven years ago.
"It will be our worst nightmare if we have the same kind of storm surge," said Doreen Mylin of Magic Manatee Marina on the Homosassa River. "Back then, boats were floating in the hangar."
Pinellas County residents were taking Gordon just as seriously. Authorities were inundated with calls about sandbags, shelters and evacuation levels.
At Home Depot in Clearwater, customers loaded up 50-pound bags of sand, plastic sheeting and tarps. A few picked out lumber to cover windows.
At the Publix near St. Petersburg's flood-prone Shore Acres area, loaded shopping carts snaked beyond the soda and bread aisles into frozen foods -- so far from the checkout counter, customers at the end didn't know which line they were standing in.
"It wasn't even this crowded at Christmas," Maggie Smith said, estimating a 90-minute wait. She lives in Shore Acres, and Tropical Storm Josephine hit her hard in 1996. "We lost everything we owned out there."
The Tampa Bay area has had a number of tropical near-misses in recent years. Hurricanes Georges, Harvey and Irene as well as Tropical Storm Harvey threatened the region and then went elsewhere.
So in Pasco County, as elsewhere, residents watched the Weather Channel on Saturday and wavered between concern and disbelief.
"Just because it didn't hit us other times when they said it would, doesn't mean it won't this time," said Judy Patriarca of Hudson. She was one of numerous customers buying batteries, extension cords and generators at Home Depot in Port Richey.
But for every customer preparing for the storm, at least one or two more were just buying paint or supplies for a planned household project.
Aside from stocking up, people were securing their homes and watercraft.
In Hernando County, John Richardson had seven reasons to stay up all night listening to weather reports: his boats. He launched into action at 3 a.m. and hauled all seven out of the water and into a Hernando County Airport hangar by 7:30 a.m., about the time his neighbors woke up to learn Gordon was heading their way.
Then he went to see his mother, who was stuffing insurance papers and licenses in a briefcase.
Like other longtime Hernando Beach residents, Virginia Richardson was determined not to let Gordon catch her by surprise like the no-name storm, which pushed water up to her front windowsill.
"She was sitting on the bar with her little dog," John Richardson said. He went to rescue her in one of his boats, steering it down her flooded street.
Newcomers on her block, Ed and Joanne Lawson, were cleaning debris out of a nearby drainage ditch so rain wouldn't back up into their garage. "I've never been through one on the water," Ed Lawson said, "but it's worth it to live on the water."
In Tampa, calm prevailed Saturday. There were no lines of panicky people pushing carts full of bottled water, no runs on plywood or masking tape. Customers stocked up on flashlight batteries, but that was about it.
Insurance companies active in Florida put adjusters on alert Saturday. Insurers expect severe rain and some flooding but minimal wind damage regardless of where Gordon strikes Florida.
Boat owners were worried. At Pinellas County marinas, they were securing their boats and were annoyed that other boaters weren't doing the same.
At Madeira Beach Marina, Capt. Stan Estes was buying extra rope to lash his 36-foot boat to its dock.
"I'm going to double-line it with a three-quarter-inch braid. It'd be stupid not to put a backup line on your boat."
During Hurricane Elena in 1985, Estes swam from St. Pete Beach to Treasure Island to secure his boat because armed National Guardsmen wouldn't let him drive across a bridge.
The Lighthouse Point Marina in the Bay Pines area filled every boat rack in its warehouse-sized drydock and was calling other boat owners Saturday to ask them to secure boats still in the water.
Said dockmaster John Allen, "I don't think people realize how bad it can get."
- Staff writers Saundra Amrhein, Ryan Davis, Linda Gibson, Jeff Harrington, Jorge Sanchez and Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report.
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