Ellicott City sisters get caught in Charley's path

Hurricane: A visit with their grandma in Punta Gorda, Fla., takes a frightening turn for two kids - and their parents back home.

August 19, 2004|By Jen DeGregorio | Jen DeGregorio,SUN STAFF

Michelle Marvin couldn't sleep. The Ellicott City mother of two was out of bed Friday and glued to her television by 6 a.m.

Hurricane Charley was moving up the west coast of Florida, and her daughters - Tory, 11, and Carly, 6 - were visiting their grandmother in Punta Gorda.

Michelle called her mother-in-law, Mary Ellen Marvin, a few hours later to check on her and the girls. What's it like down there? she asked.

The sky was blue and the sun was shining, Mary Ellen said. No sign of a storm.

Michelle felt reassured.

But what neither of them knew was that Charley would head straight for Punta Gorda, which would take a direct hit. And the Marvin girls would have to ride out the storm with their grandmother.

That afternoon, Michelle distracted herself from thoughts of Charley by going out for lunch with her mother, who also has a winter home in Punta Gorda.

But Michelle was not gone long when her father called her cell phone to say that Charley's status had been raised to a Category 4 hurricane.

Michelle panicked. About 1 p.m., she called Mary Ellen.

Everything seemed fine, Mary Ellen reassured her daughter-in-law.

"We were just sitting around playing cards in the afternoon," Mary Ellen said. "We felt like we were going to be OK."

A retirement and vacation city of 14,000 made up mainly of trailer park communities, Punta Gorda had not been struck by a hurricane in 44 years. And forecasters had said Charley would probably hit land near Tampa, up the coast.

So, despite Gov. Jeb Bush's declaration of a statewide emergency and the evacuation of many areas along the west coast, Mary Ellen stayed put. She felt safe.

But about 4 p.m., everything changed. The sky grew dark. There was a low rumble in the distance.

Meanwhile, in Ellicott City, Michelle watched TV. Charley was headed right for Punta Gorda, newscasters reported.

"I'm sitting, crying hysterically, falling apart watching The Weather Channel," Michelle said.

Her husband, Todd, made a number of frantic calls to his mother. No answer.

"It was horrible, the not knowing," Michelle said. "I said, `I'm having a nervous breakdown. I'm going out of my mind.' "

Mary Ellen, 62, and her cousin Kay Hall, 59, who lives with her, rushed the girls away from the windows to the hallway, where they had stored blankets and pillows to hide under on the "off chance" that Charley would strike.

The walls of her mobile home started shaking, Mary Ellen said. Windows exploded. Outside, the wind rose to a thunderous roar as trees were uprooted, cars were flipped and porches and roofs were torn from houses.

"That's the most scared I've ever been," said Tory, who will be a sixth-grader at Mount View Middle. She said she was too frightened to cry.

"Tory kept asking, `When is this going to be over?' " Mary Ellen said, recalling how Carly, who will enter first grade at Manor Woods Elementary, comforted her sister by stroking her shoulders and hair, repeating, "Everything will be all right."

After what Mary Ellen said was "two hours of terror," the wind slowed. Mary Ellen's neighbor, Dave - she does not know his last name - rushed in, saying that his house was holding up better than most and that they would be safer there.

Dave scooped up Tory first, covered her with a blanket and ran across the street, where he told her to hide in the bedroom closet. Dave told Tory not to peek from under the blanket until they got in the house, but she couldn't help her curiosity.

"I saw trash and stuff lying around. Like there was stuff all over the ground. There was a flood on the road," Tory said.

Dave ran back for Carly, and helped Mary Ellen and Kay wade across the water that had welled up on Jones Loop Road.

The neighbors huddled together in Dave's bedroom, waiting for the hurricane to resume. But the worst had passed.

Michelle and Todd managed to get through to Kay's cell phone. Carly reassured her father that they were all in one piece.

"We were all just thankful that we were still alive," Mary Ellen said.

After Charley passed, Mary Ellen said, people emerged, dazed, from the wreckage.

"When we went outside everyone was talking," Carly said. "I saw trees on the road and trees on the houses."

Mary Ellen's house was still standing, most likely because it was new. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, standards were tightened for construction of mobile homes. Still, most of the windows had shattered, leaving the inside soaked and filled with tree branches and grit.

Two trees nearby were wrapped in a giant sheet of siding from her neighbor's house. If not for the trees, that siding could have smashed her wall.

"We feel very lucky," Mary Ellen said.

Tory and Carly's visit with their grandmother was not to end until today, but Mary Ellen got them on the first plane she could to escape "the vacation they'll never forget," she said.

Mary Ellen will stay in Ellicott City for a few weeks. She had originally planned to come back with her granddaughters.

"I feel kind of guilty that I had to leave," she said. "But I had to take these girls home."

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