This wasn’t Randy Wayne White’s first hurricane.
When word came that the bestselling author of the Doc Ford novels had stayed in his home on Sanibel while Hurricane Ian raged over the island Wednesday, many of his readers recalled that he’d weathered Hurricane Charley in 2004 in a house on nearby Pine Island.
In Ian’s immediate aftermath, White was incommunicado. But on Monday night he spoke by phone from a hotel in south Fort Myers: “It was exciting, it was harrowing, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It’s history, and I was there. And you know I love history.”
White, 72, said he and his wife, singer-songwriter Wendy Webb, left Sanibel two days after the storm and are unsure when they can go back. “For very good safety reasons, the local government, or the state, I’m not sure which, is not allowing people to return now, and I certainly don’t want to set a dangerous precedent.”
With Ian on the way, White said, he decided to stay. “That was my decision, and Wendy made her own decision. I purchased her a first-class ticket the day before, so she could go to her family in Louisville (Kentucky), but she chose to stay.”
White said his decision was based in part on his experience in 2004, when Charley hammered the area. “I thought, it can’t be any worse than that. Minus the tornadoes, it was worse.”
They were “as prepared as we could get” in their house on Sanibel, he said. The house’s commercial-grade generator was secured 14 feet above the ground, and he parked his truck on the highest spot, about 5 feet up.
“But the surge got up to 9 feet,” he said. “When the winds got up to 70 mph, the generator panels flew off.”
Once the storm had passed, he said, he used his ham radio to call in helicopters to rescue some of his neighbors, including a woman who has Alzheimer’s. Then, he says, he spent a day in Punta Rassa, on the mainland, “doing radio ops with a group of special guys who came in to rescue people.”
He laughs when he describes their “tricked-out Jeep raised up off the ground.” About three weeks before the hurricane, he had broken two ribs when he was a passenger in a car accident, and, he said, he had to “crawl on my belly” to get into the vehicle.
The most difficult part of the aftermath, he said, was the “miserable emotion” of waiting to hear from his two sons and their families, who live in the area. All of them are fine, he said.
In fact, two more generations of Whites weathered Ian in that house on Pine Island, which sits just across from the shoreline atop a Calusa shell pyramid. “That house,” White said. “It’s historic and stellar. I just sold that house to my son Rogan a couple of months ago. He, his wife and my two grandsons stayed there, and it’s untouched, undamaged.”
During Charley, the Pine Island house lost part of its roof, and White spent part of the storm huddled in his car. So when Hurricane Irma was forecast to hit the area in 2017, they did evacuate from Sanibel, to a 500-acre defunct gun club near Punta Gorda that White leases.
“The eye went right over us” at the gun club, White said. “I came out the next day and it looked like the Germans had bombed all the trees to block the British.
“I said, never again.”
White says his “flippant” response to the question of evacuation is “Look at where the eye is supposed to go and go there.”
For now, the bridges to Sanibel and Pine Island are impassable, and there’s no way to know when residents can return. White has lived in the area since 1972, working as a fishing guide for about a decade before becoming a full-time author. He’s published more than 50 books, most of them featuring Doc Ford, a marine biologist and secret government agent, and set in and around Sanibel.
Doc Ford is the namesake of a chain of restaurants in which White is a partner. The Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille on the St. Pete Pier is unscathed and open for business. According to Marty Harrity, one of White’s partners in the restaurants, the Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach locations suffered “total devastation.” Those and the Captiva restaurant are closed until further notice.
As for White, he’s on his way to St. Petersburg. “I have a book to finish and a restaurant to open.”
The newest Doc Ford’s, at 8790 Bay Pines Blvd. in Jungle Terrace in St. Petersburg, is set to open in November.