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Dec. 3, 2022

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Brancaccio: Flight, not fight, when facing Ian

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One of Lou Brancaccio's neighbors shared photos showing Lou's aqua-colored house after Hurricane Ian passed through Punta Gorda, Fla. on Thursday. The dark patch on his roof is a solar water heater for his pool.
One of Lou Brancaccio's neighbors shared photos showing Lou's aqua-colored house after Hurricane Ian passed through Punta Gorda, Fla. on Thursday. The dark patch on his roof is a solar water heater for his pool. (Courtesy of Lou Brancaccio) Photo Gallery

Being at ground zero of a Category 4 hurricane was not what I had in mind when my wife, Maley, and I sold our Salmon Creek home a few months ago. But there we were, staring down the barrel of a 150 mph monster.

We had to decide: Stand our ground on the southwest Florida coast or flee?

We blinked. We fled to a safe place across the state to Miami, abandoning our Punta Gorda home and everything we had worked for.

And the question Maley and I had as we left our bungalow in the rearview mirror was … would there be anything left when we returned?

*****

A publisher at another newspaper once told me home is wherever you are living at the time. Early on, I had decided that I considered myself a wanderer, someone who enjoyed experiencing different places. The newspaper industry provided me with that opportunity.

So when in 1997 I received a call from The Columbian wondering if I would be interested in a job, I jumped at it. I had already worked in the other three corners of the United States, and a job in the Pacific Northwest would complete the puzzle. But what I didn’t know when I took the job was how much I would love The Columbian and Vancouver. It would end up being the last — and longest — stop of my 45-year career.

All good things come to an end, of course, and six years ago I retired and left The Columbian’s newsroom in the capable hands of Craig Brown.

And even though I said I loved Vancouver, if I’m being honest, I loved the summers in Vancouver. The winters are, ah, miserable. So we built a winter home in a tiny Florida city called Punta Gorda. Halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, we loved the quaint little place. Our home sits just 100 yards from Charlotte Harbor.

We decided to keep our Salmon Creek home and spend our summers there and winters in Punta Gorda. In part, we wanted to enjoy the Pacific Northwest summers. But we also wanted to avoid hurricane season. Only a few months ago, after growing tired of the cross-country commute, we decided to sell our Salmon Creek home and weather the challenging Florida summers.

Bad timing.

*****

If you live in Florida you love watching the Weather Channel and its marquee forecaster, Jim Cantore, during the hurricane season. A couple of weeks ago this blob of almost nothing showed up thousands of miles away from Punta Gorda. But the Weather Channel said it was worth watching. Hey, what do I know? But I trust these guys, so I paid attention. Slowly this no-name blob inched its way west. I paid attention. Then it moved south of Cuba. I paid more attention. Then it became Ian. I paid really close attention.

The forecasters were trying to predict where this thing was going. They began putting up a cone, the one that suggests a far-left landfall, a far-right landfall and the most likely landfall right in the center. At first, Punta Gorda was a far-right possibility. Not great, but not terribly concerning.

But the key — THE KEY — as far as I was concerned was where Cantore would be reporting from. He usually waits until the last minute to decide. But then there he was! Live from Tampa! That’s 100 miles north of us. That kind of distance means a lot when it comes to a hurricane.

We were safe.

I jokingly posted on Facebook: “Jim Cantore is in the Tampa area. Please stay there. You are not welcome in Charlotte County.” That’s where Punta Gorda is.

But imagine going to bed with Cantore reporting from Tampa and waking up with him live from (dramatic pause required here) Punta Gorda. I knew that meant we were in trouble.

Originally, we had planned to weather this storm at home. Yes, we were in the crosshairs. And yes, we live right on top of Charlotte Harbor. But surely our new home could withstand the wind.

But that damn Cantore. What was he doing here? I told him to stay out of my hood. But did he care? No. He gave me no choice. I looked at Maley and we both agreed. It was flight not fight.

Before we left, we pulled everything inside. I had joked several days earlier, during a rainstorm, that my potted basil plant had fallen over. Now, potted plants could become projectiles. So the basil and all our outdoor furniture came in. I filled our bathtub with water, as well as a garbage can in our garage. Drinking water becomes a cherished item if your power goes out.

Our windows are hurricane-proof so we didn’t need to do anything with them. But our sliding glass doors to our pool are not. I decided against putting metal shutters on them because I felt they would be protected by our roof. We grabbed our pillows, a block of Pecorino Romano and some of my homemade Italian sausage and fled to Miami.

*****

Watching Cantore report from Punta Gorda was gut-wrenching. He was standing about a mile away from our house. He and all the other reporters gathered at a parking structure in Punta Gorda, because there was no other safe place nearby. And if any of you were watching, you saw he could barely stand up. The wind was just too brutal. I could only imagine what was happening to our home.

Then, the reports slowly began dripping in. Somehow, by pure chance, the brunt of the storm hit an area just 30 miles south of us and away from the hurricane’s eye. The storm surge that was predicted to be up to 18 feet at our place never materialized. We were lucky. Those just south of us, not so much.

But Punta Gorda is not unscathed. Our governor said restoring power will not be a simple matter of affixing downed power lines back to the poles. We are, he said, “off the grid.” The whole infrastructure will have to be rebuilt.

*****

One of our neighbors negotiated his way onto our street and gave us the news on our house: “You’re good. No major damage.” And he sent a few photos. It looks like the screen on our pool cage needs replacing. There could be other things, as well. But we won’t know until we get home. I wanted to return immediately to assess it myself. But with no power, Maley preferred a little more time in Miami. So it looks like we’ll return Friday.

This was a bad-boy hurricane, not soon to be forgotten.

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