Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pensacola Beach Storm Story

After Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida panhandle, there were hundreds of individual storm stories circulating in newspapers, magazines, on the Tee Vee and, later, even in film. One enterprising local community theater group even knitted many of the stories together into a stage play, a year or two after Ivan hit.

There is one story we know, however, that has never been made public. Not until today. We heard it almost five years ago, just a few weeks after the storm. It was told to us by the very man who claimed to be at the center of the saga.

"Bill," we'll call him. Bill said he was still nervous about being arrested if the events he was about to relate to us ever became known. So, he asked us not to repeat the story or disclose his real name until the coast was clear.

If there is a crime buried somewhere in Bill's storm story, we're fairly sure the statute of limitations must have expired by now. So, we're going to share Bill's story with you now, for fear that if we don't it may be lost forever to posterity.

There are no hyperlinks in this story, offering you proof of its veracity. There will be no documenting footnotes, either. For that matter, we can't verify the story ourselves. While the events Bill described were going on, we were still on evacuation, closeted in a cramped motel room sixty miles away with a wife and two giant dogs. For all we know, Bill's story is not even true, although as we listened to him relate his tale, we thought we detected the distinct ring of truth. No one could possibly have made this up.

Bill is a reasonably good-looking, average sort of man in his mid-to late-sixties. Average height, average weight, thinning brown hair, glasses. A retired Navy officer, he spoke quietly in a way that somehow conveyed both an easy authority and an endearing degree of humility.

"I have a rental property on the beach," he began, "although my wife and I live year 'round in Gulf Breeze. We decided to ride out the storm at home, not far from the golf course but fairly high above the flood plane. As it happened, we did fairly well. The storm took some shingles, of course, and we had some minor leakage, but on the whole we were very lucky. We came out okay.

"That Friday, after the last of the storm had passed, you'll remember the day turned beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky. My wife and I ate a late breakfast together. Then I decided to ride my bicycle down to the Sound to see if I could tell how the beach had fared.

"By the time I reached the water's edge, visibility was good, but I still couldn't see much detail across the water -- just a few houses and a lot of white sand. As I stared across the Sound, I found myself thinking, 'Well, hey! It really doesn't look that far. I could probably swim across and get a better look.' So, I stripped down, tied my clothes in a bundle around my neck, hid my bike as well as I could in some bushes, and started swimming toward the island.

"It wasn't that far -- a mile, mile and a half, that's all. I'm in pretty good shape, so it wasn't long before I was pulling myself out of the water and onto the beach. My clothes were wet, but I threw on my pants and started down a little side street toward our rental.

"And that's when the patrol car pulled up. A deputy sheriff jumped out and came running toward me.

"Dammit, I thought. I knew I had been caught. You'll remember, for quite a long time after the storm people were banned from going back to Pensacola Beach. It was all over the radio, how it was against the law and trespassers would be arrested. The officials assumed anyone trying to enter Pensacola Beach was a thief. I thought for sure I was about to be arrested.

"'Oh my god, you're alive!' the deputy shouted. 'And, look at you. You're all wet! Man, you're a lucky guy. Do you know? You're the first survivor we've found alive! Here, let me help you.'

"Before I could say a word, the deputy wrapped me in a blanket and hustled me into his patrol car.

"'We've got to get you to the command center,' he said as he gunned the engine. 'They'll want to talk to you.'

"By now, I realized the deputy thought I had ridden the storm out on the island. He was very happy to have found me. But what would his reaction be if I told him I had just swum over from Gulf Breeze? He'd arrest me, for sure. I didn't know what to do, so I just sat there and let him continue shouting for joy over rescuing me.

"Turns out, the command center he was taking me to was the Dome Home. You know, that circular cement thing they built a few years ago? The one that was going to be storm-proof. Well, apparently, it works. I don't know when, but some time after the storm the emergency rescue people had turned it into their headquarters on the beach.

"So, we pull up in the patrol car and the deputy hustles me in. Inside that dome home, there were more deputies, and feds, and reporters, and all kinds of other people wandering around. Now, I was really in a fix. I couldn't see any way out. They had me surrounded. The deputy shouted out that he'd found a survivor. Everyone crowded around me, shouting and clapping me on the back and stuff. It was chaos, believe me. Then this guy from a TV network -- NBC, I think it was -- grabs me. He says he wants an interview, and so he needs to know my name -- and by the way, am I married and what's my wife's name and where is she?

"I tell him, 'Well, she's safe at home over in Gulf Breeze, where we live.'

"The reporter had this satellite phone with him. Somehow he finds out my phone number, I guess, and he rings her up. And I hear him saying, 'Hey, Missus. We have your husband here. That's right, Bill! He survived the storm! He's alive and safe, right now. He's awful wet, of course, and hungry, too. Wanna talk to him?'

"Then he hands me the phone and I hear my wife saying, 'You say Bill's hungry? How can that be? We just finished a huge breakfast right here, not an hour ago.'

"It was just sheer luck the NBC guy didn't hear her. I turned my back and tried to whisper into phone. 'Be quiet! I'll be home soon.' But it was no use. She was rattling on and on, saying how whoever it was they thought they had rescued, it sure as heck wasn't her husband. He had ridden the storm out, warm and dry thank you very much, right next to her all night long. Her husband wasn't starving. He'd just stuffed himself right there at her kitchen table with pancakes and eggs and...

"I hit the disconnect button. Just as I was about to hand the phone back to the NBC guy, someone shouts, 'The governor! The governor!'

"A limo had just pulled up in front and Jeb Bush was inside. Everybody ran to the door and peered out the windows to get a look at him. All kinds of officials and reporters began to scramble down the stairs to greet him.

"'I'm gonna get a sound bite from the governor,' the NBC guy tells me. 'I'll be right back. Then we'll do your interview.'

"He rounded up his camera crew and they all took off for the limo, too. For the first time since I'd crawled out of the water and saw that patrol car coming for me, I had time to think things through. It dawned on me that I had only two choices: continue letting everybody think I was a storm survivor and play along as the whole thing spins out of control and goes on national TV; or confess the truth and hope I don't get more than a month or two in jail.

"I didn't like either option. So, I decided to make a run for it. In all the confusion of the governor arriving, I just went outside and slipped away. I walked a few blocks, then caught a ride back to Gulf Breeze with a truck driver. He never asked me what I was doing on the island. I suppose he just assumed I had come there to inspect things.

"Which, of course, was true. But I couldn't have said that to the deputy sheriff."


morrie said...

Thats a true story . I know the guy and his wife.Morrie

Anonymous said...

Well it must be true he was on the 5:00 news last night along with his wife telling the same story - I guess he's not too worried about being arrested!

Anonymous said...

Not true. Jeb wasn't there that day and he certainly wasn't in a "limo".