Congratulations to an old friend

Just learned that Alan Snel, an old pal of mine down in Tampa who also is undoubtedly the world’s most intense bicyclist, has won a significant professional award.

Al organized last fall’s first “Bicycle Bash by the Bay,” a celebration of bicycling that attracted dozens of experienced cyclists and cycling newcomers. This week, the Florida Bicycle Association named the Bash the Event of the Year.

Al already is hard at work putting together the second annual Bash, which will take place November 4 at Vinoy Park on the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg.

A decade ago, Al was a pioneer in the genre of sports business reporting. He worked for newspapers in Denver, Seattle and elsewhere, and was the producer of a sports business website for one of the networks. A couple of years ago, he created his own job as marketing director for a group of bicycle shops around Tampa Bay. He usually starts his days with a quick 40- or 50-mile bike ride, and he’s made two cross-country bicycle trips.

Al’s blog, “Bike Stories,” can be seen at http://alansnel.com/blog/.

I’ve known Al since the early 1990s, when we covered the same political beat in South Florida for competing newspapers fighting like cats and dogs for the same readers. We’d spend our days trying to beat each other’s brains out on the beat, then often meet at the local ballpark after work for beers and minor league baseball.

So, hey Al, congratulations. This is an impressive achievement.

By the way, the screen grab of Al on his bike is lifted from a blog called SideSalad, produced by Jeff Houck, another old pal from my days in the Florida journalism wars. Jeff’s lively and very hip blog is always worth a visit at http://www.sidesalad.net/.


Young love cut short by hurricane

Bascom Grooms, 12, with his big sister
Rosalind Grooms Palmer.
On this date 72 years ago, Rosalind Grooms Palmer sat down at her typewriter in Key West, Florida and banged out a teasing, affectionate note to her 12-year-old kid brother, Bascom Grooms, who was visiting friends up the islands in the village of Tavernier.

She apologized for the brevity of the note and, perhaps to ease the guilt she felt at not writing more, enclosed 50 cents so Bascom could buy an ice cream sundae for himself and a young friend named Elizabeth. She told her brother that she’d like to be with him on Key Largo “enjoying the ‘squitoes and other varmints such as sand fleas,” but added that she wouldn’t be taking any trips for a while.
Rosalind's short note to her brother Bascom explaining why
she wouldn't be seeing him during the Labor Day holiday.

That was what might be called a polite fiction. but her travel plans weren’t exactly the kind she wanted to reveal to her little brother or to the family he was visiting. She would be joining her boyfriend, 19-year-old George Pepper, at the Matecumbe Hotel in Islamorada for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

That note from Rosalind was the last communication Bascom would ever have with his sister. Five days later, she and George were killed when the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history came ashore in the Upper Keys.

In December 2002, I interviewed Bascom at his home in Key West. He allowed me to copy photos of him, Rosalind and George from his family album. The sepia-toned old photographs tell a poignant story of a long-ago romance that was tragically ended just as it was about to blossom.

Rosalind was only 21 in August 1935, but she had already been through a brief, unhappy marriage to George Palmer, a U.S. Navy officer she’d met when Palmer’s ship docked in Key West. Rosalind – young, impulsive, fun-loving and beautiful – had fallen for the Navy officer, and they were married in Key West in 1933. They moved to San Diego, where Palmer’s ship, the destroyer USS Perry, was based.

But less than two years later, Rosalind suddenly appeared in Key West and said her marriage was over. Bascom recalled that she didn’t say much about her reasons for leaving her husband and filing for divorce.

Rosalind got her old job back as a court clerk. Rosalind was considered one of Key West’s most beautiful young women, and as soon as word got out that she was no longer married, lots of eager young men sought her attention.

Rosalind didn’t take her looks too seriously, however. She thought her legs were too skinny for her to be really attractive. She loved to dress well, and white high-heel pumps became a trademark of her wardrobe.

In early 1935, she met George Pepper, and soon she was again in love. Her new boyfriend was the nephew of Claude Pepper, who was just beginning his legendary career in Florida politics.

George had gotten a job as a mess hall steward at one of the work camps that housed World War I veterans working on a New Deal construction project in the Keys. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

Rosalind and George were gaa-gaa over each other. In July they went to a photographer’s studio in Miami and posed with various props for charmingly cheesy photos.
George Pepper, left, and his girlfriend Rosalind Grooms Palmer
hammed it up at a photographer's studio in Miami.
They planned to get married as soon as Rosalind’s divorce was final.
Rosalind and George planned to get married as soon
as her divorce was final.
A day or so after Rosalind wrote the note to her brother she went up to Islamorada to meet George. They shot more pictures of each other on a pier, Rosalind in a knit dress and her ubiquitous white high-heel pumps, George in a white shirt and tie and summer slacks.

Rosalind, a snappy dresser who loved white
high-heel pumps, posed for photos by her
boyfriend, George Pepper, shortly before
the fierce Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
On Labor Day weekend 1935, a tropical storm crossed the Bahamas into the deep warm water of the Florida Straits. It began rapidly intensifying, and by September 2 – Labor Day Monday – it had mushroomed into a seagoing monster with sustained winds of more than 165 miles an hour. By late Monday afternoon, the worst of the storm’s winds were starting to claw at the Upper Keys.

At a veterans’ labor camp at the foot of Lower Matecumbe Key, George Pepper was instructed to use his boss’s car – a big, heavy 1934 Dodge – to take some of the veterans’ wives to safety in Miami. Sometime around 5 p.m., George and Rosalind climbed into the big automobile and set out for the Matecumbe Hotel to pick up the women.

They never made it. For weeks, survivors and rescue workers wondered what had become of them.

They finally got a clue to the grim fates of Rosalind and George on September 18, when rescue workers found the 1934 Dodge submerged in Florida Bay, about 100 feet from shore. A diver found a pair of white high-heel pumps in the car, but no sign of the young couple.

They found Rosalind’s body the following day. The storm had hurled her onto Raccoon Key, one of the small, soggy little islands that dot Florida Bay.

George’s body was found several weeks later. The storm’s ferocious winds had carried him across more than 30 miles of water to Cape Sable at the foot of the Florida peninsula.


Hurricane Andrew changed my life

Fifteen years ago this weekend, my life changed.

My wife and I were living in South Florida. On Saturday, August 22, 1992, we were having lunch with a friend at a small cafĂ© in Stuart. Someone mentioned that the first tropical storm of the summer had formed and was somewhere around the Bahamas. Since it was the first storm of the 1992 hurricane season, it was given the “A” name – Andrew.

I didn’t think much about it. I made a wisecrack of some sort. We moved on to another topic of conversation.

But out in the Atlantic, Andrew was undergoing dramatic and profound changes. We didn’t know it at the time, but Andrew had already strengthened from a tropical storm to a minimal hurricane.

Hurricanes draw their strength from warm ocean water, and Andrew had found a banquet. And as it sucked up the energy from the warm water, there were no upper level winds to impede its development.

So Andrew underwent what meteorologists call rapid intensification, more colorfully known as “bombing out.” In only about 30 hours, Andrew mushroomed from a minimal hurricane with winds of 75 miles an hour to a city-leveling monster with winds of 165 miles an hour.

By Sunday afternoon – 24 hours after our leisurely, untroubled little lunch in Stuart – I was as close to panic as I ever remember being. We were totally unprepared for anything like this, and as Miami TV anchors continued their sonorous predictions of inevitable doom, we were trying to figure out what the hell to do.

At some point on that bizarre Sunday afternoon, I made a run to the ATM machine to get cash and then to a gas station to fill the tank of my car. All around me were thousands of other people also trying to make hasty preparations for probable catastrophe. I paid the clerk for my gas. As he handed me my receipt, he said, “Have a nice weekend.” I just stared at him open-mouthed and speechless for a moment. In the background, the TV was blaring about the coming doomsday, and this guy was wishing me a pleasant weekend. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say, and left, shaking my head.

We spent the night with a friend whose house was equipped with hurricane shutters. About 120 miles south of us, Andrew made landfall in southern Dade County.

Andrew has been described as more of a large tornado than a hurricane. Very intense hurricanes have very small eyes, and as Andrew roared ashore early on Monday, August 24, its eye was only about 12 miles wide.

Up the coast in St. Lucie County, however, we were in Andrew’s fringes. We received some intense rainfall and wind gusts that took down a few tree limbs, and that was pretty much it.

But about a week later, I was in southern Dade where Andrew had come ashore. At one point from Florida’s Turnpike, all I could see from horizon to horizon was total destruction. Nothing was standing. Everything was a jumble of debris, shards of lumber, broken trees.

At Florida City, where the turnpike ended, it looked like the town had been used for artillery practice. People with dazed expressions on their faces were driving around in cars with smashed-in roofs and broken windows. A blue haze of smoke from burning debris hung in the air. Military helicopters buzzed about overhead. Crowds of people were gathered around large, military tents to receive food and first aid.I could have been in a Third World nation instead of the U.S.

I’m still sorting through the effect that that experience had on me. It may be the closest thing to a religious experience that I’ll ever have, because for the first time in my life, I fully realized that there are forces in this world whose power I cannot begin to comprehend and against which I am powerless.

For a couple of years, I became obsessed with powerful hurricanes. I decided that if I was going to live in a part of the world where these things might visit, I had to learn everything I could about them. So I read everything I could find about hurricanes.

At some point, I read about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. I was astonished to learn that this storm had been even more powerful than Hurricane Andrew. In fact, the Labor Day hurricane is still the most powerful storm to make landfall in the U.S.

I dug up more information about this hurricane, and became fascinated with the story of hundreds of World War I veterans being left in harm’s way when this storm came ashore in the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935. It was a complex story with many layers. And it became Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which was published by National Geographic in August 2002 – ten years after I’d witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Andrew.


Dean was third-most powerful hurricane at landfall

Meteorologists will be sorting through data from Hurricane Dean for months analyzing this incredibly powerful storm, but a few facts are already clear.

Hurricane Dean is the ninth-most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Dean’s lowest recorded barometric pressure was 906 millibars, which was recorded on August 21 at around 4 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. At that time, its sustained winds were clocked at 165 miles and hour, with gusts to 201 miles an hour.

A hurricane’s intensity is measured by its lowest barometric pressure reading and its peak sustained winds. A sustained wind is one that is measured continuously for at least one minute.

A very low barometric pressure reading is an indicator of very powerful winds.

The Saffir-Simpson Scale, which was devised by engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson in the late 1960s, classifies hurricanes according to their destructive potential. Hurricane Dean became a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Category 5 storms are capable of causing catastrophic damage if they make landfall. These are the storms that level nearly everything in their path. The energy a Category 5 storm releases can only be measured by comparing it to the detonation of multiple atomic bombs.

Hurricane Wilma, which roared across the Caribbean Sea in October 2005, is the most powerful storm in the Atlantic. As Wilma approached a landfall at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, its barometric pressure bottomed out at 882 millibars. At that point, its peak sustained winds were 170 miles an hour.

But luckily, Wilma weakened before it reached the Yucatan and made a right-angle turn toward the Florida Keys.

Although there are eight storms that reached greater intensity than Dean, only two other storms were stronger than Dean when they made landfall. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 – which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935 – is still the most powerful hurricane to strike the United States. The official low for this storm was 892 millibars when it came ashore at Long Key.

Hurricane Gilbert, which came ashore in 1988 at very near the same spot as Wilma, had a barometric pressure of 888 millibars.


Eagles return to lower Roanoke River

Sam Styons, a friend of mine who spent a lot of time on the Roanoke River when he was growing up here in Plymouth in the 1950s and 1960s, told me that he never saw bald eagles on the river in those days.

Things have changed for the better since then. During a trip upriver with Sam and some other friends earlier this week, we saw seven -- that's right, seven -- bald eagles during the 30-mile round trip.

This photo was shot by Bill Ehrenbeck, who is Plymouth's public works director. The bird held this pose for so long that I thought he was going to demand a tip after Bill got the shot.


So long, Weekly World News, it was fun

As Ed Anger might say, I’m madder than a blind man in a nudist colony. My favorite tabloid, the Weekly World News, is closing up shop. The tabloid newspaper will cease publication this month, apparently because of declining circulation.

For those of you who aren’t regular readers of the WWN, Ed Anger is, I assume, the nom de plume of the tab’s perpetually ranting columnist who vents his rage every week about the constant frustrations of modern life. He always begins his rant with a colorful variation of the phrase “I’m madder than …..”

The closing of WWN means I’ll no longer be able to read about such important news as Satan’s face appearing in storm clouds, and in dark smoke billowing from gigantic fires. Only in WWN could you read about Satan’s face being seen in a satellite shot of Hurricane Andrew.

Nor will I be informed of the computer viruses that are spreading to humans (see above), or the next sighting of Elvis. And I won’t know who The Alien will endorse in next year’s presidential election.

FYI, The Alien, a tall, slender extraterrestrial who neither wears clothes nor has external gonads, backed Clinton during his two campaigns.

The so-called Mainstream Media just isn’t going to report that kind of news.

I started reading WWN in the early 1990s, when I was a reporter in Florida. If you’ve never chased news in that part of the world, you have to understand something: Florida – especially South Florida – is a strange place that seems to compel people to do strange things, usually in public.

A reporter goes to work in the morning knowing that, before the day ends, he or she could be writing about Cuban or Haitian refugees coming ashore at a nearby beach, or a Space Shuttle crash, or a man finding a coral snake in his swimming pool and being bitten when he tries to put it in his freezer, or an alligator attacking a senior citizen on a golf course.

And it’s not just bizarre local news. I have a theory that every major news story that breaks in the U.S. at some point takes a turn through Florida. From the hanging ballot chads that ensnarled the 2000 presidential election, to the September 11 terrorist bombers learning to fly in Vero Beach, to the Florida congressman whose suggestive e-mails to young pages in the House of Representatives probably cost the Republicans the 2006 elections – if you can imagine it, it’s probably already happened in Florida.

I think that’s why South Florida is home to supermarket tabloids such as WWN, the National Enquirer, the Star, and others. I think the tabloid editors realize that just being in the midst of the South Florida looniness is a great stimulant to their writers.

I never paid attention to WWN until I lived there. Then, one day in the Publix checkout line, my eye fell on the WWN rack. I don’t remember what the headline was, but I do recall thinking that, after having lived in the land of surreal news events for a while, the stories in WWN seemed less absurd and more appealing to me.

Note that I did not say that I believed the stories; I just suddenly found them more appealing.

So I started buying a copy occasionally. My wife, a very bright woman who earned a PhD from one of the nation’s top three graduate sociology programs, was surprised and maybe a little embarrassed that her husband would bring home such a lowbrow publication. You don’t take that stuff seriously, she said. Nah, I said, I just read it like a comic book.

After a year or so, I learned to think a little like a WWN editor. I learned to take several contemporary fears and a few scraps of news and mold them into WWN-style headlines such as this one: “Alien pit-bulls spreading AIDS.”

Why did I like the WWN? Because it was unashamedly outrageous and hugely imaginative. Because its editors and writers didn’t give a flip about chasing half-true celebrity gossip that is the staple of other tabs. Because WWN was always printed in honest, down-to-earth, good old black and white.

Soon it will be gone from the supermakets, and life in the checkout line, alas, will be even duller.