Hard Lessons

Live from Germain Arena

Short-term memory apparently gripped the masses at Germain Arena on Monday morning a mere four hours after Hurricane Wilma blew through.

Suddenly, the insane desire to leave the safety of the largest hurricane shelter in the five-county area became the norm.

Even though winds gusting up to 60 miles-per-hour were still whipping up a frenzy in the parking lot and bending trees at a 45-degree angle, an anxious and restless mob formed at the only entrance and exit being used at the facility. The crowd continued to grow as the minutes ticked away, and television reports depicting calmer conditions elsewhere only fueled the fire, causing concern in the eyes of the Red Cross volunteers and the Lee County sheriff's deputies.

After congregating in the outer hallway for a meeting that included a conference radio call with EOC officials, a deputy was sent back in to address the crowd. He told them that conditions outside were still very dangerous and the EOC was advising people to stay off the roads because EMS vehicles weren't even allowed out. They have to wait until the winds die down to underneath 40 miles-per-hour. But the evacuees cannot legally be held in the shelter and can leave at their own risk, so with that, a throng of about 2,000 people bolted for outside -- some to smoke, some to check on their cars and the rest to go home.

In the middle of the chaos was a married couple armed with what certainly had to be the sagest advice for those crazy enough to brave the elements. Jonathan and Crystal rode out Hurricane Katrina inside the New Orleans Superdome, and the memories permanently embedded in their minds are enough to last two lifetimes.

Jonathan, a restaurant chef with deep lines, the kind only someone who has been through an awful lot easily visible in his face, was pushing Crystal in a wheelchair. No, they weren't leaving, he just wanted to get his wife some fresh air. She injured herself two days before the storm when she fell trying to help her husband board up their Bonita Beach home.

Both of them were shaking their heads in disbelief at the scene unfolding around them, families with infants or little children rushing away from their safe haven and into an unknown world of debris and destruction.

"We're not going anywhere yet," Jonathan said. "After what happened in New Orleans and the rioting and the looting we saw, I don't know what's going on out there. I'm going to stay right here where it's perfectly safe. We live on the beach and for all we know it's under water. I suppose half these people will wind up coming back."

Lin Jensen of the American Red Cross remembered the couple from when they arrived as Katrina evacuees and helped them settle in. She saw them on Saturday and recalled how nice they were, and they remembered her as well, so they felt more comfortable.

"I didn't see any problems in here," Jonathan said. "In the Superdome there were fights and gunshots. I couldn't believe it when Wilma started tracking this way, not after making it through Katrina. We just replaced everything."

When I spotted Jonathan and Crystal again Tuesday morning under sunny skies, a welcome cool breeze and much calmer conditions, Jonathan told me they were staying at Germain for another night before heading back to see their home. There were only a few hundred evacuees left inside, but they obviously learned a lesson from Katrina and Rita.

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