Editor’s note: As the hurricane season draws to an end, the author remembers the storm of the year.
I am writing this by hand on the Saturday after Hurricane Ian. I sit on a lawn chair in the garage with the door up. I have good natural light, a lap desk and a spiral notebook. This is our fourth day without power, the longest such stretch in more than 40 years. We were among the first to lose it Wednesday morning and will be among the last to get it back.
Ian sucked. And it sucked the water out of Tampa Bay. Or pushed it out. I can’t imagine what it was like south of here in places that took a direct hit. That’s not true. I did imagine it. In my dark dreams our street in Evacuation Zone D was flooded, a raging torrent. The Clarks huddle in the rafters of the attic, or maybe we were up in our oak tree, hanging on the branches, waiting for the helicopters. In real life our sandbags were bone dry, the water never getting above the curbs.
We love a cliché in this neck of the woods. We use it every time we have a near miss, as we did with Charley, Irma and now Ian. “We dodged a bullet,” we say. But this time it feels short of the mark. We did not dodge a bullet. We dodged a nuclear warhead. And we suffered radiation burns along the way.
If you have lived here long enough, you know the myth that Tampa Bay is protected by some natural or supernatural force. I don’t know about you, but my higher power does not play meteorological video games, where it looks down and says: Oh, I like, St. Pete. Let’s steer this wheel toward Sanibel and Captiva.
The Clarks lost power almost as soon as tropical storm winds hit us. We had kept our power through Irma, but this time we heard a loud bang, then two cracks, then darkness. A hollow live oak — mostly dead — broke into three large pieces in a neighbor’s yard, landing on roofs, fences, and dragging down sparking wires. The damage would destroy two power poles. As I sit in my garage three days later, a dozen utility trucks are trying to deal with the damage. That oak tree, home for raccoons, should have been cut down years ago.
So too a towering Australian Pine down the street that over the years leaned like the Tower of Pisa. At the first gust of tropical wind the tree timbered down, blocking the entire road, turning our through-street into a dead end. This morning, before we woke up, a crew showed up and sawed it into huge blocks of wood, stacked on what used to be the owner’s lawn.
You may be curious now about the phrase in my title, “the attack of the flying saucer.” Is it possible that space aliens arriving in UFOs were manipulating the weather in an attack on us earthlings? Let me set the scene. Picture me in the middle of the storm, standing in my yard against the fiercest wind I have ever experienced. Our cat Duchess is petrified, hiding in the bushes. I know it is dangerous for me to be out here, against the wind, a yard from some downed wires, but we love this cat.
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Suddenly I hear a sound, not a bang or a boom or a crash but a loud SNAP!!! It is so loud it scares the cat across the yard and under the tool shed. I look up and I can’t believe what I am seeing. It is a flying saucer and it’s spinning right at me, the stuff of space alien movies from the 1950s. Why were they sent here to St. Pete, I wonder, and not Martha’s Vineyard?
Here’s what happened, and it’s a story three decades in the making. Some 30 years ago, our wonderful next-door neighbors, great sports fans, acquired a satellite dish so they could watch all the games. Made of a metal frame and mesh, it measured 10 feet across, and was attached to the roof of their house. Twenty years ago, it became obsolete, but sat there like a technological museum piece.
The big wind snapped the dish off their roof. Turns out it has the aerodynamics of a Martian frisbee. The gust caught it, snapped it from its moorings, sent it flying more than 150 feet across the expanse of their house. It angled down, just missing the top of our white vinyl fence. Our house and your astonished author were saved by a cluster of thick bushes. Bougainvillea, crape myrtle, frangipani, and cassia trees sacrificed themselves, caught the saucer and held it, even as it wobbled in the wind for hours.
What we will remember
I know that the citizens of the Tampa Bay region and beyond have some amazing stories to tell in the years to come about sidestepping or surviving a historical storm.
I will tell folks about how the bay emptied out, how my wife read two novels in the dark using a flashlight, how one sparrow hopped around our yard unperturbed, how we loaded ice into our washing machine and used it as a cooler for milk and beer, how Duchess the cat returned to the house safe and sound meowing for food, how, for the first time in almost three years I went almost a week without thinking about COVID or wearing a mask.
After a miserable Spring and Summer of the hottest and most humid weather in memory, we experienced one of the worst weather days in our history, followed by one of our best days. Suddenly it was sunny, cooler, with low humidity and a soft breeze that made you want to forget that bad breeze of yesterday.
I will remember the human side of the storm, how two older gents stopped by the house in a pickup truck and for a fair price offered to clear the debris from our house. How Travis and Gena next door, with a generator, invited us in for morning coffee, so we could charge our phones. How every neighbor on the block helped in the cleanup. How every stranger who walked by stopped to see how we were doing.
There are 20 houses on our block near the southern tip of St. Pete and Pinellas County, a neighborhood known as Greater Pinellas Point. We stand out for our diversity. We are retirees and young couples. We are teachers, nurses, mail carriers, a cafeteria lady, a fire chief and a sheriff’s deputy. And at least two writers. In the midst of this shared danger, no one cared where you went to church or who you voted for. On the radio, I heard Gov. Ron DeSantis thank President Joe Biden for his help.
Outside our house on Saturday morning, we see as many as a dozen utility vehicles lined up for action. To get our power back they have to remove fallen trees, replace two broken power poles, and restring the power lines. All day and after dark they work furiously, more than 50 workers in hard hats and yellow vests. I believe I questioned and thanked every one of them. In addition to workers from Florida, I met men and women from Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, and especially Ohio. A team from Cincinnati numbered about 30.
At about 9 p.m. I stepped out of the house, still dark except for candles and flashlights, and stood right in the middle of our street. The activity and conversations among the workers suggested that they were finishing up, so I approached a man who might have been a supervisor. “What do you think?” I asked. “Are we talking about hours or days?” He answered, “If everything checks out, I think we are talking 10 more minutes.”
It turned out to be eight minutes. I spent that time feeling a soft wind against my face and looking up at the sky. The sky was clear, the moon a creamy white crescent. But what were those little points of light up there? Those sparkly things? Could they be stars? We’ve lived here since 1978 and, because of light pollution, have never seen, beyond the belt of Orion, a sky full of stars. I did my best to think of those glorious constellations as a small gift for the anxiety we had suffered.
But wait, what is that moving light up there? A plane? A helicopter? A shooting star? A UFO?
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.