Fall 2004

Pushed to the Edge


College algebra was my evil nemesis while going to school at Wichita State University. My buddy was an engineering student at the same time and couldn't fathom why I struggled with the course. I gave up trying to explain to him that my brain just wasn't wired for story problems and decided the only way I was going to get through the much dreaded required course was to immerse myself in it during a summer accelerated class.

For several weeks that summer I experienced algebraic hell. When not in the classroom, I was home doing algebra exercises trying to master it enough to pass the class. When I finally made it, the sense of accomplishment was profound. In just a few weeks of intensive studying, I learned more than I ever thought I could about college algebra.

I've felt the same way the past several weeks as I've taken a crash course beyond comprehension about hurricanes. Three of them slammed us over a six-week span here in central Florida where I'm editor of a daily newspaper. It's not accomplishment I felt after making it through these horrific storms. Survival is a more appropriate word.

When I moved here barely more than a year ago, hurricanes were the last thing on my mind. Living inland, locals here bragged that hurricanes didn't hit this part of Florida. Or at least if they did, they decelerated to tropical storm strength, which still is destructive but not that bad.

Being a Kansas boy who's seen his share of severe weather as tornadoes sliced across our state, I didn't give it that much thought. But Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne left us battered and rethinking our sense of safety.

The best I can describe the feeling of being hit every two weeks is to compare it to residents of London during World War II. German bombs pummeled their city while citizens waited out the raids. Immediately after they were over, it was time to start cleaning up the mess and calculating the damage. Then it started over again.

Weariness descended over everyone here as forecasters warned of another hurricane heading our way. After Charley was the monstrous Hurricane Frances, which slowed to a crawl and took nearly 20 hours to move through our area. It was Hurricane Jeanne, though, that hit us the hardest.

After the first hurricane, news of another one trekking through our region was more than we could take. For almost a week we watched as the storm moved toward us, wondering which path it would take. All three crossed my path. After a while you start to take it personal.

Hardly anyone in my office had experienced a hurricane. They turned to me, knowing I was from tornado country, believing I had some understanding of these ferocious storms. It's true I've seen the death and destruction that killer storms bring. I interviewed dozens of people in Cowley and Elk counties in Kansas after tornadoes shredded their houses and even killed a few loved people.

I witnessed what was left of their homes and lives, and saw in their eyes the horrors of living through such a nightmare. But what I saw on the plains of Kansas was nothing like what we had here. As far as material damage, nothing destroys more property than a hurricane, especially when one hits a heavily populated state such as Florida. The swath of destruction is incredible, usually reaching 100 miles either way from the storm's eye.

With tornadoes, though, the killer potential is greater, I believe, if it hits your house. It's more violent. But how can you measure one type of killer storm against another?

I learned all the hurricane terminology and feel like in one summer I've gone from a rookie to a veteran. I could hold a fairly intelligent conversation about the intricacies of hurricanes after having them fill my life with either waiting for them to arrive, riding out the 100 mph sustained winds or living through the aftermath. Like college algebra, I made it through the stressful situation, but it wasn't easy. Both put a few more gray hairs on my head, and I'm hoping the knowledge I gained won't be needed again.

Long after this hurricane season passes, though, I'll be left with the images of people being pushed to the edge emotionally, physically and financially. I'll remember the look in their eyes as they prepared for another knockout blow, not knowing if their homes would make it through a second and third storm. And I'll remember saying a prayer to keep my family safe at 2 a.m. as the worst of a hurricane began its brutal work battering my house.

In retrospect, the heartache from three hurricanes in six weeks is enough to make the stress of passing a difficult college course seem warm and fuzzy.

Richard Hensley is editor of Highlands Today in Sebring, Fla.