Mark “Live Through a Hurricane” Off My Bucket List

Mark “Live Through a Hurricane” Off My Bucket List

Hurricane CharleyTen years ago, I was able to mark several items off of my “bucket list.”

One of those items was living through a Category 3 Hurricane.

My family and I were living in Celebration, FL at the time. My niece had just finished spending the Summer with us, and we had returned from a blisteringly hot week in the Florida Keys, wringing the last bit of vacation out of our systems.

After we had returned to Celebration, we had originally planned for my wife, my son, and my niece to return to Nashville on Friday the 13th. Watching the weather, we were concerned that, should the threatening Hurricane Charley turn right, they might not be able to leave Orlando. We opted instead for them to fly out on the 12th. I was working on a software project for a client, and so I remained at home.

On the 12th, It was by no means certain that the storm was going to pass across Central Florida. I wasn’t particularly worried. Anxious, maybe even a little excited. But not worried. Our utilities in Celebration were all underground, and we were on the Disney power grid. I wasn’t concerned about being without power.

Early on the 13th, Charley took a decidedly sharp turn right at Punta Gorda, and had blown up to a Cat 4 hurricane with amazing speed. I spent the morning, walking around our neighborhood, noting the quiet stillness. The theme parks remained open right up until 1 PM. There was an air of electric anticipation.

Early evening, the storm hit.

I was sitting in my kitchen, working, when all hell broke loose. It’s impossible to describe the intensity of daily Florida thunderstorms to someone who hasn’t experienced one; it’s equally fruitless to describe what being inside a major hurricane is like. The wind, water, and noise comes at you from every direction at once. The amount of water coming down is unbelievable.

You sit there thinking, “I am a jackass for being here.”

Charley was intense. And fast.

Unlike many hurricanes, it was so fast moving, that there wasn’t much of a “backside” to the storm. In just a handful of hours, it was past Central Florida and out over the Atlantic.

The devastation the next morning was unbelievable. Every tree was down in the neighborhood. The houses and townhomes in Celebration survived largely intact. The surrounding area homes weren’t as fortunate. Blue rooftop tarps would be a familiar sight for many months to come. For many of our friends in Orlando, it would be weeks before power was restored.

What Charley blew down, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne blew away in the weeks that followed. In all, three Category Three Hurricanes passed over our home in a month’s time.

Needless to say, Friday the 13th, 2004 is a day we will long remember.

While 2004 was an extremely damaging year for Hurricanes in Florida – don’t forget what a monster Ivan was, that hit the Panhandle that same year – the next year saw so many named storms that the alphabet was lapped. Murphy, my youngest son, was born in New Port Richey in July of 2005, as Hurricane Dennis threatened – already in the “D”s the first week of July, an early indicator of just how busy the season was to become.

In the coming days, I hope to jog down more remembrances of those weeks of waiting for the wind and water to pass… of going to Disney in a downpour, because I was tired of sitting in my den for four days… of driving to Daytona, looking for ice… of our satellite dish being hit by lighting, just as Hurricane Jeanne was coming to shore… of being in awe at how powerful nature can be.

Of feeling guilty that we came through relatively untouched, aside from a few trees, while many friends and neighbors lost everything.



Celebration, Florida

Celebration, Florida

celebration - our houseAh, Celebration, FL.

Quite the polarizing place. 

We lived there from 2003-2005 (see photo), 740 Mulberry Avenue on Savannah Square, in a 3-story townhouse. And by and large, we loved it.

I survived three category 3 hurricanes in six weeks while living there in 2004, with Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. Marked that off my bucket list.

It isn’t for everyone. Being in the heart of tourist land (US 192 abuts the North Village, and Disney is right across I-4), it is anything but convenient to shop for groceries, hardware, or any “basics” outside “the bubble.”

But there were also so many cool things, too – walking in the morning around the lake, hearing voices, and looking up to see hot air balloons just a few hundred feet overhead. Hansom cab rides in the Fall and Christmas. Walking to the bank, restaurants, the post office, the movies (sadly, no longer open). Fireworks from Disney every night at 9. Ten minutes door-to-door from the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Heaven to some. Hell to others.

It even has its own song:

It is no more authentic (or inauthentic) than beards, tattoos, and yoga pants. Give those a couple of decades of hindsight, and we’ll see how they hold up.

What Celebration does is throw into sharp relief a bit of what living in Florida is like – essentially, a state of haves and have nots. Along US 192 you have families stuck living in hotel rooms, unable to escape to a better life. Immediately beside, inside the bubble, million dollar houses and a new urbanist vision of harmonious high density living. A tiny corner of conspicuous consumption in one of the largest counties in the state, with only significant two cities of any size (Kissimmee and St. Cloud – Celebration is not classified as a city).

Contrasted with my time in Winter Park (2008-2011), Celebration certainly lacked the patina that comes with established neighborhoods. But – one murder in a couple of decades? I think that stands up pretty well, compared to Metropolitan Orlando (in 2007 or 2008 – memory fails me – there were something over 100 murders in a single year there).

I have lived in neighborhoods undergoing transformation (Hillsboro Belmont / Belmont Waverly in Nashville), established neighborhoods (Orwin Manor / Winter Park, FL), and new urbanist developments (Celebration, FL / Hendrix Village, Conway, AR). Old houses, houses with leaky roofs, new houses with termites. Neighborhoods aren’t great intrinsically; what makes great neighborhoods are great people, and I have happily found great people almost everywhere we’ve been, regardless of the prevailing economic demographic.

If you look for problems, you’ll find them. That’s not being apologetic for Celebration, because I’ve had some rather shitty interactions there. For example, the first night in our house in Celebration we had a neighbor put a nasty note on my car, for parking in the spot in front of MY house, before determining who’s car it was. Or the neighbors who never stopped by until our house went on the market – but were on us like flies trying to list our house once they found out we were moving (oh wait – that was Winter Park!). Or the neighbors who watched our garage get robbed and never called the police (oh wait – that was Waverly Belmont!). You get the idea.

Point is, Celebration is an easy target for some well deserved Schadenfreude. But it was also the first home for my second child, and the place where many happy family memories were made for us. You can say I have a “soft spot” for Celebration (mostly, the top of my head).

The issue with Celebration is that it is a dream concept, but a dream concept that was – and is – only ever available to a few. Would I live there again? Yes.

But I would take it for what it is, and not for what it was supposed to be.