by Jim Desjarlais

What It’s Like To…Survive Charley

Dec 15, 20043 mins
IT Leadership

I’d been tracking Hurricane Charley for days, and most reports had the storm hitting more than 100 miles north of me, around the Tampa area. That’s near where I rode out my first hurricane when I was 23. I was young, a newlywed, and it was great fun.

Florida authorities asked about 2 million people on the west coast to evacuate. I wish I had listened. But Charley was a Category Two storm when it hit the Florida Keys early Friday morning, Aug. 13, and Category Twos cause only minor damage. Besides, my job is overseeing the county’s IT networks; I needed to make sure Lee County had the systems it would need to manage what I was sure would be huge demands on county services.

Thirty minutes before Charley’s eye hit at about 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, local forecasters said the storm had turned east. It was now a Category Four, packing 145 mile-per-hour winds and headed straight for me. My house is in South Ft. Myers, one mile from the Caloosahatchee River, which served as an alley, funneling Charley through the heart of Ft. Myers. I knew I was in trouble, but it was too late to leave.

I live alone except for my 7-year-old sheltie, Patches. I called her and headed for the bathroom in the middle of the house. Patches sat next me quaking. It takes a lot to scare me, but I was scared now. Large trees in my yard snapped in two; power lines came crashing down. The walls shook so hard that pictures fell to the floor. The windows in my house—which was built in 1989, before Hurricane Andrew ushered in stricter building codes—bowed in like shallow bowls. If they broke, I knew the wind would blow the roof off. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before my eyes. But I began to think about my three grown kids, Daun and Michael, who live in Orlando, and Steve, who lives in Virginia. But Charley was a quick moving storm; by 6 p.m., the winds had begun to die down. I had survived.

Early the next day, I drove seven miles past downed trees, dangling traffic lights, and fragments of office buildings and homes to get to my office on the top floor of a three-story building. Much of the roof was gone. All the computer equipment was wet and worthless.

My staff did a magnificent job following our disaster recovery plan. We worked all weekend to patch together a telephone switch. We found temporary offices for 40 members of the IT staff. We had backup generators for electricity, although not all were reliable. We lost our Nextel phones, but were able to piggyback onto the 800 MHz radios that the emergency personnel folks used. Atos Origin, to whom we outsource our network services, immediately sent eight people and 25 new computers from Texas. We also provided communications for 20 FEMA staffers, who were so crucial in helping Lee County recover. We were up and running in five days and were able to support county disaster recovery services, such as helping two other departments move into new facilities with data and voice. We staffed the emergency operations center 24/7. In the first few days, about 50 IT folks from around Florida offered to help, and I was still getting calls a month after the storm.

In the end, our disaster recovery planned worked, and I’m proud of how we responded. And we learned a most valuable lesson: Expect the extraordinary.

—As told to Allan Holmes