Friday, August 13, 2004

The Virtual Storm

In the almost-year since we purchased our home in Celebration, we've celebrated many firsts. Our first Founders Day, our first downtown paper "leaves" and soap-bubble snowfalls, our first live alligator sighting, our first Florida resident annual passes for Disney World...the list goes on and on. But one first I could do without, that came today with a vengence, was our first hurricane. And, as luck would have it, we ended up experiencing it long-distance, since we are stuck up north.

Actually, this year Florida experienced a rare one-two punch from back to back storms. The worst of Bonnie stayed away from Celebration, but her little brother Charley hit it head on.

We have been commuting back and forth from our old house to Celebration almost every week, and on the day of Charley's wrath we were scheduled to fly out at 7:10 p.m. When he had booked the plane tickets, my husband had joked, "We can't fly out on Friday the 13th!", and of course I had to mock him for being superstitious. Now, as the day approached, it looking like bad luck was going to descend on us in the form of driving rain and triple-digit wind speeds.

On Thursday night, I was already worried. I am a timid flyer at best, and the thought of landing in a hurricane had me wondering if it would be a good idea to somehow get bootleg Xanax and wash down with a few vodka chasers to dope myself into a stupor on the plane. A few months back, we had been flying back from Celebration to the midwest and were trying to beat a thunderstorm, but we didn't make it. The plane circled for a while, and then the pilot announced that we were running low on fuel so we were either going to divert or attempt to make a landing. A few minutes later, he got back on the PA and said that we were going to head down.

As we descended through the storm clouds, the plane rocked back and forth in a way that I'd never experienced before. I've been in turbulence where we've had some nasty drops, but never any rolling. I managed to keep my panic in check by chatting with the flight attendants, who were seated in jump seats across from us. One man across the aisle mentioned the movie "Final Destination." If you've never seen it and you're a timid flyer...DON'T. Early in the movie, there is a very graphic plane crash scene that takes my paranoid nightmares and brings them to life on the screen.

I was still maintaining a facade of calm, but one of the flight attendants suddenly said to the man next to Mr. Final Destination, "Are you okay?" The poor guy was white as a sheet! Apparently he had seen the movie, too, and was having flashbacks. The pilot had just cut back the engines in preparation for landing, and the poor guy blurted out, "It sounds like the engines stopped!" The flight attendant reassured him that everything was normal...or at least as normal as possible, considering that we were rocking side to side like a manic amusement park ride.

Landing safely on that night was one of the happiest moments of my life. I'm sure that we were never in any real danger; the pilots probably handle severe weather situations regularly. But for a paranoid person like me, it feels like a narrow escape from certain doom, and I'm sure the guy across the aisle felt the same.

At any rate, after that I certainly wasn't looking forward to landing in the midst of Hurricane Charley. I was counting on that fact that our flight would probably be cancelled. But my husband was praying that it wouldn't be; no matter what, he wanted to get home. He kept saying, "The storm should be over by 9 p.m. and we're scheduled to land after 10," overlooking the fact that even if the airport remained open, flight delays throughout the day would no doubt start a domino effect.

On Friday morning, my husband woke up early to do online check-in and grab our favorite exit row seats. "See!" he crowed triumphantly to me. "Our flight is still showing as 'on time.'" I was too sleepy to point out that it was only 6 a.m., and the airlines are notoriously slow about updating their websites.

All day Friday at work, I kept checking the news online. My co-workers, who knew my dilemma, clucked sympathetically at my husband's obsession and periodically emailed me links to the latest news items. The photos and news stories painted a grim picture of Charley's rampage across the state. I found myself uttering little prayers for the poor souls caught in the storm's path. I knew that things were probably going to get quite grim, as Disney World had announced that its theme parks would be shutting down at 1 p.m. Believe me, the Mouse is money-hungry and only shuts down in the most grave of circumstances. The Typhoon Lagoon water park and the Animal Kingdom didn't even open at all, and the campers in Fort Wilderness were relocated to hotels.

I grew up with regular tornado warnings throughout the spring and fall, and although I never experienced one firsthand, several have struck frighteningly close to home. I actually did see a tornado once, but thankfully it was up in the sky and didn't touch down. But hurricanes are more frightening because they move so slowly. At least with a tornado, if you get hit, it comes through and is gone in a matter of minutes. A hurricane unleashes its 100+ mile an hour winds and torrential rain for what has to feel like an eternity. And worse yet, a hurricane can spawn tornados on the poor victims who have suffered enoug already.

By 3 p.m., I checked the airline website, and it finally announced that all flights into Orlando International Airport had been cancelled for the rest of the day. This is the first time in my life that I can honestly say I was glad not to be going to Florida. But I couldn't help but worry about all of our friends who were sitting ducks in Charley's path. Here I was, safe and sound 1500 miles away, and they were facing the onslaught of a vicious storm.

I knew that our house would be fine, as I had contacted our house cleaning service to make sure they took in anything that might go blowing around the neighborhood Wizard-Of-Oz-style. I didn't want my porch swing to crash through my living room window or my trash can to pay a visit to neighbors across the alley, or maybe even a street or two over. But houses can be replaced, whereas people cannot, and I prayed that everyone in town would remain safe. In my earliest research on Celebration, I had read about the construction issues with the original homes, and I wondered how that might affect their soundness when confronted with Mother Nature's fury.

When I got home and logged on to the internet, I discovered that I wasn't so cut off from Celebration after all. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I could experience a virtual storm right from my keyboard. Of course, I could log onto weather sites and see radar, and even generic photos and film clips. But better yet, between email and the Front Porch intranet, I could get firsthand reports almost right as they happened. I could "hear" how my beloved town was coping, and I could even watch the storm (at least in the downtown area) via the Celebration Hotel's web cam.

(Note: If you'd like a quick glimpse of Celebration right now, click this link:

My husband stayed glued to the Weather Channel, while I toggled between email and the Front Porch to experience the virtual storm via live updates from Celebration residents. Thankfully, as I write this blog entry, Charley has pretty much passed through the town, and most of the reports are centered on downed trees, missing roof shingles, and leaks in roofs and around windows. No injuries, thank God...just a lot of clean-up. Our house is right across the alley from a construction zone, so I wonder how it fared in the midst of wind gusts that were probably close to 80 m.p.h., if not more.

If all goes well, we will be home next week and can see for ourselves firsthand. By then, I imagine that things will be mostly cleaned up and life will be proceeding as normal. I'm just happy that no one was hurt, and the property damage sounds relatively minor.

People think of hurricanes as sticking to coastal areas, and that is usually true. By the time they reach an area as far inland as Celebration, they've lost most of their power. But Charley proves that even Fantasyland is not immune to Mother Nature, and every now and then she unleashes her fury just to remind us who's really in charge.

My virtual storm watch is over, and although Celebration got off relatively easy, there were many poor souls who did not. I am keeping them in my prayers, as well as the others who are still in the storm's path. Florida may seem like paradise, but it's not without its dangers, as Charley just reminded everyone in a very graphic way.

If you have any comments about my blog or questions about Celebration, please feel free to email me at

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