Anyone from Matlacha who finds Hurricane Wilma stronger than their desire to stay in their home can find last-minute refuge at Capt. Mike’s Market.
Manager Ric Jefferis decided to open the store 8 a.m. Monday, no matter how bad WilmaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s wrath and regardless of the condition of the store. Storm-shocked residents are even instructed to come behind the building and pound on the door to be let in at any time during the storm.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“If we donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t open, there will be no place on the island for people to get bread, cigarettes, beer or anything else,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Jefferis said late Sunday night as WilmaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s winds started to blow in the area.
Jefferis does not drive, and can walk to about wherever he wants in the area. But that can be limiting, particularly after a bad storm.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“People here shouldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t have to go without anything if I can prevent it,” he said.
Turns out famed author Randy Wayne White, a mystery writer and former fly-fishing guide, is a regular customer (Full discloser: I am a big fan of WhiteĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s writing, and just finished his book Captiva.)
White, a resident of Pine Island, came in shortly before 9 p.m. to buy bread, Gatorade and other groceries.
We chatted briefly before I realized who he was, then shook hands and introduced ourselves.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Be safe,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll be the guy living in the only house with lights out there. Stop by if you like.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Tempting. Very tempting.
People are suffering from hurricane burnout and Wilma hasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t even hit Florida yet.
WilmaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s been such a strange hurricane because itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s taken so much longer to get here than many residents first thought.
That has allowed for a staggered evacuation rather than a mad rush that can make such juicy TV footage. You canĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t even find a line at a gas station today.
Residents started to grouse that theyĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve been ready for days, leaving little to do but let worry overwhelm them.
By 8:30 a.m. Sunday, about 25 people were golfing at Fort Myers Country Club.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a slow day, but people are committed,Ă˘â‚¬Âť said Jim Martin, who was ensuring golfers teed off at their assigned times.
Wilma fatigue was everywhere. Fort Myers Beach looks like satellite truck row, with about a dozen of the nifty, high-tech vehicles tucked behind big buildings, with reporters doing live shots outside (WilmaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a lesson on how to make calm seas and empty streets look terrifying).
A smattering of residents walked along the main drag, and stopped by the few bars that remained open. The boredom resulted in people spray painting pithy Flintstones sayings on boarded up windows, like: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Wilma, FredĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s not here. Stay away!Ă˘â‚¬Âť
For some, days of heightened preparation led to burnout.
Gordon Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“BoochĂ˘â‚¬Âť DeMarchi, a spokesman for Lee CountyĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s emergency operation center, was exhausted from dealing with journalists and their myriad questions.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“My mind is so fried, I canĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t remember anything,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said after being unable to remember a phone number heĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d given out dozens of times in previous days.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I just need some sleep,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
HeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s got some time. We still havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t had a drop of rain yet.
Ed Kiesel said something today that I canĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t get out of my head.
Kiesel is a shrimp boat owner in Fort Myers who was talking about why he loves his profession: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Sometimes it can be boring, but youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve always got the chance it wonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t be. At any moment, there can be total chaos.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
The same is true in journalism.
Photographer Michael Spooneybarger and I have been living that great line since we got here Wednesday.
Spooney and I have covered several hurricanes, but so far Wilma is different.
Rather than creating a widespread frenzy, residents have trickled out of the area for days.
The roads are wide open and thereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s never a wait for gas or supplies.
People are largely friendly and all seem to have a plan for evacuating or hunkering down until Wilma passes.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s all very serene.
So we wait for Monday, for our slow-moving dose of chaos.
You know news is happening when mobile home parks have public affairs officers to escort you around the property.
We decided to stop by one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mobile home parks erected for survivors of Hurricane Charley to see how they were reacting to the threat of Hurricane Wilma.
We arrived to find two guards who gave strict instructions to wait for someone from FEMA public affairs.
“Huh?” I thought.
I was at the very same park a few months ago without a single sign of a FEMA spokesperson. Why now? Well, it seems that after Hurricane Katrina, about 4 million journalists wanted to see how Charley victims were dealing with the threat of more storms.
Few things tick me off more than being part of a media circus. You get the sinking feeling deep in your soul that nothing original will be said, and certainly not to you. The security guard was listing off other news organizations he’d seen in past days: NBC, CBS, USA Today and journalists form all over the world, including China.
We needed to check out the mobile home park, so I was stuck in this bad scene.
I bought a local newspaper from a box and opened the paper on the hood of our Suburban. As I read, two journalists from Spain drove up in a rented Ford truck.
“How long have you been here?” one of them asked.
“Since yesterday,” I said, not lifting my eyes from the page.
“No,” he said. “How long have you been waiting in line?”
“Since yesterday,” I said in total resignation.
The look on his face was beyond priceless.
“About 20 minutes,” I said while turning the page.
Soon, FEMA spokeswoman Mildred Acevedo escorted us on to the mobile home park, hawking over us during most interviews.
The journalists from Spain avoided us the rest of the day.
It doesnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t feel like a hurricane is barreling toward the Fort Myers area judging by the ho-hum attitude of locals here.
Sure, the TVs are turned to the weather station and a few businesses and homes are boarded up. But gas is still plentiful and lines are nonexistent.
Even the Home Depot had ample parking. Heck, weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve still got power and wireless Internet connection in the hotel.
Photographer Michael Spooneybarger and I drove at least a100 miles today, traversing barrier islands and the most suburban reaches of the area in search of hurricane frenzy.
People gardened or biked or shopped, and a utility crew even repaired a power line, perhaps the most optimistic act ever witnessed with a line-snapping hurricane looming.
We stopped by a plasma donation center on the outskirts of Fort Myers.
Spooney shot photos of people boarding up the building. I went inside, where about a dozen people waited to give in exchange for cash.
Clinic manager Patricia Gant said the place is often a last-resort for people who need a few extra dollars, generally the communityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s poorest residents.
One haggard gentleman waited for his turn.
He was reading a book: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“A Winners Guide To Greyhound Racing.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
The trick to covering a hurricane is to get gas whenever you can.
At home, I won’t even think about gas until my low-fuel light goes on.
While waiting for a hurricane, I get nervous when the gauge drops below three-quarters full.
So this morning, I am off to fill our Suburban and the six or seven gas cans that will have to sustain us after the storm hits.
My hope is that people aren’t as worried about gas as I am and haven’t swamped local gas stations.
You look at a community differently when you are waiting for a hurricane.
Photographer Michael Spooneybarger and I spent the night driving on Sanibel and Captiva islands trying to get a feel for the area before the storm. It was a pretty normal night. People were out to dinner, going for walks, biking. We trolled through dark neighborhoods, imagining what they might look like after a wall of storm surge washes through.
“That whole area would be gone,” I’d say, drawing a nod from Spooney.
We also looked for areas that might be good, safe places to ride out the storm, assuming it makes landfall somewhere near here. We want to find people who will ignore calls to evacuate. We want to be safe, but we want to be where stories are. We don’t really want to weather the storm in our hotel, though that is an option. We spent a little time looking for safe places to hide our Chevrolet Suburban during the storm. We can’t tell if storm surge would be a problem at out Fort Myers hotel, which looks to be about a mile from water. It looks safe, but you can never be too sure.
We arrived in Fort Myers about 5 p.m., before the expected frenzy of evacuation for Wilma. Residents here like saying “Wilma? Who’s Wilma?” or “What hurricane?” But there’s barely a television set not tuned to local weathercasters making their best predictions about where the storm might go. A few evacuees from nearby barrier islands and mobile homes have started to check in at the Comfort Inn where we are staying. Photographer Michael Spooneybarger and I are heading to Captiva to see how residents there are getting ready.