Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

Memory of no-name storm remains strong for former sheriff

Twenty years dim memories, but not these.

Lee Cannon will never forget.

In his first two months as Pasco's sheriff, his deputies investigated the biggest fire in our history and a heartbreaking murder of a 12-year-old girl who had just stepped off her school bus. Then in the third month, as if the news could not get any worse, a squall line formed in the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into our shore, filling hundreds of homes with four feet of water.

Unlike hurricanes, it didn't get a formal name. But "no-name storm'' became an enduring label, a symbol of nature's violence and our vulnerability, a warning to prepare for even worse.

Today, on this 20th anniversary, we recognize it as the worst storm in our modern history. Like all great events, we remember where we were when it hit.

"We knew it was coming,'' recalled Cannon, who watched the squall on radar. "But nobody predicted the power of that surge. I've thought about it many times since, especially how ordinary people responded with such bravery. They risked their lives with boats and other equipment and helped get others to higher ground. That's what I remember most.''

He feared the light of day would reveal fatalities, "but we got lucky.'' For weeks in all coastal neighborhoods, crews cut up trees that had fallen on roofs. Soggy carpet and ruined household goods sat outside on the curb everywhere west of U.S. 19. Cardboard signs signaled to insurance adjusters. The air smelled like a wet dog.

A few days after the storm, I drove to western Hernando County to check on friends' house in Bayport. They had moved to New Zealand and were renting to some doctors who had been forced to evacuate in a rush. The water mark on the living room wall was 4 feet from the floor. A new, black Porsche Carrera sat in the garage. When I opened the door, water and fish poured onto the ground.

Stilt houses on Pine Island were blown off their pilings. One house that had survived numerous storms split in two pieces, one drifting more than a mile down a canal. Two cats rode out the storm in the eaves of the other half. My friend in Hernando Beach grieved the loss of pet rabbits that had drowned in their cages, five feet above ground.

Lee Cannon served two terms as sheriff. He said virtually every emergency preparedness decision made during that period drew on lessons from the No-Name Storm. "We beefed up marine patrol and evacuation plans,'' he said.

Now 67, he makes his living selling real estate and occasionally practicing law. "I keep busy,'' he said this week, "and real estate is starting to pick up. I do miss being sheriff. But I have to say, those first three months in office were something else.''

He's especially pleased that the sheriff in Hernando County, Al Nienhuis, recently appointed a full-time detective to the murder of Jennifer Odom. The 12-year-old disappeared shortly after stepping off her school bus in St. Joseph's on Feb. 19, 1993. A couple hiking near a horse trail 10 miles north in Hernando County came upon her body six days later.

Twenty years dim memories. But as the old sheriff said, "Somebody out there knows something. It only takes a spark of information.''

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