Photographs by Tim Kern
It was a dark and stormy night. (I always wanted to start a story like that!)
Hurricane Charley hit Winter Haven with its full force at about 7:30 on the evening of Friday the 13th. It was packing winds well over 100 mph (the nearest reporting anemometer blew away after recording 106) and damage was widespread and severe.
I kept track of things at my house, where the power went off at 7:15, never (yet) to return. The wind howled, and rain came down so thick that I couldn't see across the street. Inside the sealed house with my mag-lite, I was able to read the altimeter that is part of an eclectic collection of stuff in the living room. Usually, it reads around 140 feet; the Kollsman window was set at 29.95, and I left it there. At 7:40 p.m., as unknown things were beating against the walls and the plywood-covered windows, I noticed that my living room had "climbed" to 750 feet. In five minutes, the instrument read 850; and by 7:55, it was at 1020 feet. I've flown some sick airplanes that didn't climb that fast! After a few minutes "at altitude," my living room slowly "descended," leveling off in a few hours, when Charley was ravaging Orlando, on its way to Daytona and points beyond. (When I tried to duplicate the difference in altitude after the barometric pressure had stabilized, I found there was not enough adjustment in the instrument.)
Just after sunup on Saturday, I went to Winter Haven's Gilbert Field (GIF), where I rode the runways in the airport's pickup truck, to check for debris. The runways were clear, but there was some hangar damage. Aircraft at the field (two were readily apparent, tied down) appeared undamaged, so we then picked up debris, trees, hangar doors and assorted wreckage to open the airport. The first private plane lifted off at about a quarter before 8 a.m. No coffee (no power), but everything was really OK ... everything, except for an empty hangar on the north side of the grounds. That hangar's roof and many other constituent parts were strewn over a quarter-mile stretch of grass, where they did no damage to anything else.
Around town, oak trees three feet in diameter were split or uprooted. Every neighborhood had impassable sections, and the lack of power made travel dark and dangerous, as dazed drivers blew through unlit intersections. Houses were sitting inconveniently beneath massive tree trunks, and the soggy ground made that squishy sound, as neighbors helped each other move big limbs off each others' driveways. There was no gasoline, no food; several folks pulled out the grills, to cook everything in the freezer, as power wasn't expected to go back on for several days.
Charley had passed a few miles to the east of Gilbert. At Lake Wales, though, the hangars were virtually all destroyed. Farther along Charley's path, a friend at Orlando's Executive Airport reported that every single small plane there suffered some damage. A phone call to Embry-Riddle, across the state in Daytona, held more bad news: Everything that flew was hurt. Unofficially, a dozen Skyhawks were wrecked, and a new Diamond, tied down in anticipation of the winds' predicted direction, was tied down facing away from the wind. That one's broken, too.