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Ivan, nature and history

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When Hurricane Ivan waded ashore about 2 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2004, I was holed up inside the Pensacola News Journal offices in downtown Pensacola. Water was up to the tops of the parking meters on Jefferson Street, and seeping into the building at various spots; we had used rope to tie the door by the photo lab shut, and it seemed unlikely that the big metal bay doors on the loading dock were going to hold much longer given the agonizing noises they were giving off.

We were, at this point, debating the wisdom of the decision to stay. But we quickly grasped the folly of trying to make our way to higher ground in darkness in the teeth of a full-blown hurricane.  Our fall-back plan was to take shelter on the second floor of the pressroom, a stout concrete bunker.  But we made it, and continued posting information online from the newsroom, through a phone line that miraculously remained open, until the storm crossed the coastline. We then hunkered down with the rest of Pensacola to await daylight.

No one who lived through it needs me to remind them of what a mess we discovered as dawn broke. Anyone who had harbored any romantic notions about hurricane parties or adventure sobered up amidst the sheer magnitude of the destruction and waste.

For anyone who had forgotten, Ivan reminded us just how powerful nature is when riled. The sheer power of it was overwhelming.

But it also reminded us of how resilient human nature is. Someone driving through Pensacola today would have no inkling of what we went through.

Perhaps the most lasting impact for me was learning how little we seem to learn from a past we don’t ourselves experience. I remember reading about the thousands of people in Japan killed by the great tsunami of 2011 because they built their houses seaward of the ancient stone markers left by past generations to show where previous tsunamis had crested. They tried to warn the future, but their voices were lost in time.

It seems like such a simple lesson, but it’s profound: if something happened before, it can happen again.

We had built a house in 2002 on Garcon Point that was, according to official flood maps, not in a flood zone. But I had read “Panhandle Memories,” the memoir of Adelia Rosasco Soule, in which she wrote about riding out the storm of 1906 in a house on Robinson Point, several miles north of us. The water rose so high that logs floated in from Blackwater Bay to pound the foundations of the home. It’s one reason we built our house on raised pilings, even though building codes did not require it. The money was well spent as Ivan’s surge pushed 75 yards past the house, a distance I deduced later from the fact that I found much of my firewood deposited there. It had been stacked under the house.

Before we washed Ivan’s debris from the wall of the storage room under the house, I marked the crest of the flood so we wouldn’t forget.

I remember also talking with officials at Gulf Islands national Seashore, who had lost their machine shop to Hurricane Opal in 1995, which was also marked by what was thought to be a high storm surge. They said that Opal’s surge came in two feet over the elevation of the floor, so in a conservative response they rebuilt at Opal plus 1 foot. Ivan came in at something like Opal plus 3.

I suppose that as time distances us from Ivan the storm will take on a patina of romance, and we who stuck it out will sound heroic as we describe that night and the aftermath. But we should do our descendants a favor by telling them the truth, and thus leave them a marker. What they do with it will, of course, be up to them.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.