Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Public safety

Bus driver picks up seniors, and their Charley memories, before Irma hits

Times Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA — Robert Kole says he's "not no hero."

The 53-year-old Charlotte County bus driver was in his normal bus — a diesel hybrid, the largest bus in the county's fleet, he said — but not on his usual route Saturday.

Instead he was picking up elderly people and others with special needs who had yet to evacuate before the dreaded arrival of Hurricane Irma on Sunday, taking them to shelters.

"It's not like that," Kole said. He was among 15 or so bus drivers doing the same thing all over Charlotte County.

"Somebody's got to do it," he said.

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

Irma is targeting the Gulf Coast in a way residents here haven't seen since 2004's Hurricane Charley, which turned up the Gasparilla Sound, laying waste to Punta Gorda. Kole was here then, and he's worried now.

No, not worried. "I'm scared to death."

But at least he's comfortable. He left his uniform behind and went out driving in a T-shirt and athletic shorts.

"They didn't tell me I couldn't wear it," Kole said.

• • •

While Kole sat at the wheel chattering with bus dispatch, Joan Lenington, 83, was in the back worrying about her home.

It's a modular, built over the footprint of the old manufactured house she lived in before Charley destroyed it. She's concerned she could lose another house.

"I am petrified," she said. "I'm worried I won't be able to go back."

When Charley was approaching, Lenington and her late husband were in the Finger Lakes in New York state, camping out of a recreational vehicle and watching the storm on television.

"I saw Charley going up, it looked beautiful going up, and then it just turned," she said, remarking that she thought it would miss her home.

So they packed up their campsite early, and heeding the warning not to return too soon, took a leisurely two-week drive back to Florida.

What was left?

"Nothing," Lenington said. But luckily they got a spot at a Punta Gorda RV park and stayed there in the meantime.

If there's nothing left after Irma, she said she'll stay with her daughter in California, scrunching her face at the idea.

• • •

Dorothy Muñoz, 67, didn't bring a change of clothes with her on the bus to the shelter. But should she get hungry, she was ready.

She packed into her canvas tote some Chex, barbecue potato chips, tuna, Hershey's chocolate bars, Gatorade and saltine crackers.

"I really didn't have time to pack," she laughed.

She was going to ride out the storm in her ground-floor apartment. After all, it had survived Charley.

But it's in the zone most vulnerable to flooding. So when she heard on the television the storm surge could bring up to 10 feet of water to Punta Gorda, she had second thoughts.

"It's frightening," she said.

She lamented she didn't buy an orange life jacket, seemingly joking.

"No, seriously," she said.

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] Follow @Josh_Solomon15

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