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Author writes up a storm: Randy Wayne White’s novel based on surviving Ian

By Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:48am
2 Photos
Author Randy Wayne White works in this office at his home on May 13 in Terra Ceia, Fla., where he and his wife are living while still waiting for their Sanibel home&rsquo;s repairs to be finished.
Author Randy Wayne White works in this office at his home on May 13 in Terra Ceia, Fla., where he and his wife are living while still waiting for their Sanibel home’s repairs to be finished. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times) Photo Gallery

TERRA CEIA, Fla. — When Hurricane Ian roared ashore as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28, 2022, bestselling author Randy Wayne White was at his home in Sanibel.

White’s videos of the storm surge went viral: the rising water submerging trees and, at its worst, lapping onto the balcony off the house’s living room — 12 feet above the ground. The wind was so loud, even inside the house, that it drowned out voices.

Watching one video during a recent interview, he says a big rectangular object floating on the surge isn’t the new generator he lost. “No, that’s a refrigerator from a hotel. The West Wind hotel washed up in our yard.”

As Ian raged, White monitored his ham radio. “I was hearing all these distress calls during the storm that were very disturbing. One man said, my wife just got swept off the porch and she’s down by the beach, help me. And there’s nothing you can do.”

After the storm, his house was standing but too damaged to stay in. The floodwaters had breached the floor. For a couple of days, he used his radio skills and knowledge of the island — he’s lived in the area since the 1970s — to assist rescue efforts. And then he went looking for a place to live. And write.

Twenty months later, the repairs on the Sanibel home are almost finished — and White is about to publish a novel based on surviving the storm.

White, 73, has published more than 50 books, 26 of them thrillers featuring Marion “Doc” Ford, marine biologist and not exactly retired secret agent. Doc Ford’s is also a chain of restaurants, two of them in St. Petersburg.

“One Deadly Eye” is the 27th, and, White says, “It’s my best book.”

After the hurricane, White and his wife, singer-songwriter Wendy Webb, moved into a handsome house on Terra Ceia in Manatee County.

“We bought it,” White says. “We have grandchildren here and grandchildren there, so it’s nice to have options.”

White’s ground-floor office space looks out onto mangroves hemming a canal that offers access to Tampa Bay. On the dock lift is a 26-foot boat with the logo for Ford’s fictional company, Sanibel Biological Supply.

In the driveway sits a Ford Raptor pickup, a replacement for a brand-new one claimed by Ian. “The storm washed it out of my driveway, then later washed it right back.”

In the moment, White says, he wasn’t scared. “It happens so fast there’s no time to be afraid. That surge came in like a mountain river.”

But, a reasonable person might ask, what the hell were you doing there?

Not his first hurricane

It wasn’t White’s first direct hit from a major hurricane. It was his third.

In 2004, Hurricane Charley, first forecast to hit Tampa Bay, took a hard right and slammed into Captiva Island as a Category 4, spawning multiple tornadoes. White was living on Pine Island, which lies between Sanibel-Captiva and the mainland, in a century-old frame bungalow perched on an ancient Calusa mound.

The house survived, minus part of its roof, and so did White after spending part of the storm sheltering in his car.

When Hurricane Irma took aim at the Gulf Coast in 2017, White and Webb packed belongings into a trailer, boat and two cars and decamped for a former gun club he leases as a writing retreat, about 40 miles inland.

Irma took a swerve, too — passing directly over the lodge.

Pine trees and power lines were down everywhere, White says. “It looked like the Nazis had bombed it to stop the British.” They had to use chainsaws and axes to open a path to the road.

So when Ian came on the radar, White says, “I figured, after Charley, how bad could it be?

“Minus the tornadoes, it was worse.

“The one in 2004 took three hours. It was like a laser. Ian was eight, nine, 10 hours.”

He had asked Webb if she wanted to fly out to visit her family, he says, but she chose to stay.

During the storm and after, he used his ham radio for communication after power and cell service evaporated.

A licensed operator, he’s loved ham radio since he was “a kid on the farm, listening to Radio Moscow, the BBC, just all over the world.”

His skills served him well the day after Ian, when U.S. Coast Guard helicopters arrived. Not many people stayed on Sanibel, but some did, including neighbors with medical issues. White and a couple of friends sent out the SOS and helped get the choppers to them after discovering the pilots couldn’t map street addresses.

“So we had to guide them in from the ground,” he says. “Thank goodness, in that way, that I stayed.”

Given the intensity of what he calls “a very powerful experience, existential,” when did he start thinking of writing about it?

“Very, very soon,” he says. “Maybe right away.

“I certainly took notes. As it was coming I was observing how animals behaved. You know, people say, birds know what to do. Reptiles know what to do.

“I can tell you birds don’t know what to do. Reptiles don’t know what to do. Sharks might know what to do.

“The pelicans were out all over the place, wandering around like drunks, exhausted. The coyotes must have figured out something, because they’re back.”

After the storm, a lot of humans ended up in a Fort Myers hotel, including White and Webb.

“It was like ‘Casablanca,’” he says, except instead of everybody trying to get letters of transit, they were trying to get boats. “I knew where the boats were.”

He met some interesting people, he says, including a British physician and inventor who inspired a major character in “One Deadly Eye.”

Other characters were based on friends he knew before the storm, a group of migrant workers. He found them after the hurricane in their surge-damaged homes in Punta Rassa, east of the washed-out bridge to Sanibel.

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“Some of the best people I saw in the aftermath are my friends from Central and South America. They do the work, they send money home, they don’t bitch and moan.

“When I went to see them, I said, do you have water? No, we don’t have water, but we get it from Publix. That’s a 3-mile walk to Publix. They had no AC. Nobody came to check on them.”

In “One Deadly Eye,” White makes the characters based on them heroic, after exposing them to wild peril.

He does the same to Doc Ford. For Ford, the hurricane isn’t just a hurricane. As the book begins, he learns he may be the target of Russian assassins.

The coming hurricane could be the cover the killers need, Ford thinks: “An island that’s been evacuated is a temptation to lawless types.”

Back in Sanibel, Doc gets a tip from a friend who works in private security: “After the last bad storm in New Orleans, some insurance executive type figured out looting could be big business with the right team. Not the smash-and-grab crap. Organized and mobile with dialed-in targets.”

The executive has the data on “where the rich ones live from Galveston to Key West,” and he has a skilled crew with plenty of high-tech equipment.

Ford wants to neutralize his assassins, as well as protect his neighbors, who include a couple who own a chain of jewelry stores and a doctor with a multimillion dollar art collection.

Not to mention his fiancee, Hannah Smith, and their toddler son, Izaak.

White says he had already done a lot of research on hurricanes. “I’ve read a lot of the stories from old-timers like Totch Brown, Esperanza Woodring, Leon Crumpler. … I wanted to put all the historical aspects of hurricanes on the scaffolding of a thriller.”

“One Deadly Eye” took him about a year to write. “I wanted to take my time with this book,” he says. “I wanted to make the prose as clean as possible, to pay attention to the sentence rhythms.”

And his own bout with Ian informs the details of the book, from how deafening the sound is during a hurricane to the hazards of navigating the Intracoastal Waterway afterward, when you might encounter a mostly submerged Cadillac Escalade.

Ian also hit three of the Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille restaurants. The one on Captiva, part of the South Seas Island Resort, was closed. The original restaurant on Sanibel re-opened within a few months, and the Fort Myers Beach location, although heavily damaged, re-opened last year.

The damage to his own house is almost repaired, White says. “The water came up through the flooring. I lost so many books, first editions from Peter (Matthiessen, a National Book Award winner and one of White’s closest friends, who died in 2014), from President Carter. My wife lost her 1918 Steinway.”

“I don’t know how it’s going to feel to go back. There are a lot of scars. In the old house on Pine Island, it took a year and a half, two years to feel comfortable there again.”