Survivors recall horror of 'Storm of the Century'
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 5:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:44 p.m.
DEKLE BEACH — At 5:30 in the morning, the water was 10 feet deep in Charles Carlton's yard and rising rapidly while his house was falling down.
Houses were floating by, their pilings — designed to keep them high and dry — having snapped.
Across the road, immediately on the Gulf of Mexico, several members of a family clung to treetops. As the snow started, one woman fell. She died.
Carlton and his wife, Diane, made the decision to swim across a tidal marsh to a small hill for safety. But there was one thing Carlton — caught in the most freakish and unexpected storm to slam into the Big Bend — did not do.
"If you want to die, panic," Carlton said. "My house was collapsing under me. The cars from other houses were beating the pilings of mine. You cannot panic."
The storm that barreled ashore 20 years ago today along the Florida Gulf Coast killed 10 people in Taylor County, including five from one family — the family Carlton saw in the trees.
The National Weather Service had known for a couple of days about a gigantic low-pressure system moving eastward, but it suddenly grew in intensity in the Gulf on March 12, 1993. It was on a collision course with a strong cold front coming from the north, and at least one forecast that Friday said it could become the "worst storm of the century."
But meteorologists predicted the storm would shift north and blast through Georgia and the Carolinas. The National Weather Service didn't issue its first warning for Florida's Gulf Coast until just before dawn on March 13.
By then, hurricane-force winds and storm surges already had devastated coastal communities from Dekle and Keaton beaches in Taylor County to Cedar Key, Inglis and Yankeetown in Levy County.
By the time it had climbed up the East Coast and dissipated in the North Atlantic on March 15, the massive storm had affected nearly 40 percent of the nation's population and 310 people had died.
Even today, the community of Dekle Beach is little more than a few roads that wind along the Gulf. In 1993, it was a mix of full-time residents and weekend homes.
Many of the homes directly on the Gulf were built on pilings in the soft bottom. At high tide, the clear Gulf water would lap underneath.
Today, some of the pilings still stand as reminders of the devastation. But Carlton has little trouble remembering what he would like to forget, especially the family who rented out a nearby home for the weekend.
"As far as I know, it was their first time here, and they arrived after dark," Carlton said. "They didn't know what to do. One of the men was in that cabbage tree over there. His wife, she was in a tree, and that pine tree had a bunch of people in it. The next morning it was so cold, and it snowed. One lady in the pine tree fell out and killed herself. She was so cold she couldn't hold on anymore."
Killed were Bobbi Howe Murray, 55; her 13-year-old son, Timmy; two grandchildren, Trey Sapp, 5, and Anissa Sapp, 2; and her son-in-law, Levy Sapp, 23. They were from the Suwannee/Columbia County area.
Murray's daughter Melinda Sapp, 23, was found alive far inland. A few miles down County Road 361, in Keaton Beach, residents spent a harrowing night while the storm surge and winds blew down houses, submerged cars and roads, and sent boats adrift.
Robert Sadousky, sitting Tuesday in his house stuffed with the taxidermied testament to his hunting and fishing skills, recalled watching a weatherman on TV the night before forecast some possibly rough weather. But it was far worse than forecast.
"It's hard to make me scared. I've been here 40 years, and I got used to the house shaking when the wind blew," Sadousky said. "Nobody dreamed of anything happening. Nobody left. When I woke up, I had no idea what was going on. The shutter was banging against the door, and so I opened the door. And you know what I saw? Waves. Was I startled. Water was halfway up on the house. My car floated off and sunk."
Sadousky waited it out in his house. Brad Beach did not. He and his wife left before their house floated down the road.
Beach and his brother, Travis Beach, at the time owned the Keaton Beach Marina. Their families and others in need of shelter — 13 in all — huddled in the second-floor home above the marina.
"The water was moving so fast it blew the highway out," Brad Beach said. "It's not something I want to experience again."
He afterward moved about four miles inland.
A plaque at the park in Keaton Beach commemorates the storm and lists the names of those killed in Taylor County. In addition to the family cited by Carlton, also killed were Derek Johnson, 9; Timothy Dewitt Murray, 13; Shanda Chauncey, 20; Charlene Elaine Archer, 23; Edward Hunt, 71; and Sibyl Archer, 73.
The storm dusted North Florida with snow. The northern part of the storm, which stretched the length of the eastern seaboard, was a blizzard.
A combination of technology and construction regulations could at least lessen the impact should another such storm arise.
Travis Beach, socializing with friends in the marina, patted his holstered cellphone and said it is an instantaneous source of up-to-date weather.
Meanwhile, building regulations enacted in Taylor County since the storm require that houses be higher and their pilings deeper into the ground. Houses no longer can be built in the Gulf.
As a result, many of the homes in Keaton and Dekle built since the storm are more costly and more elaborate with elevated decks below the main living floor.
While Brad Beach left Keaton, Carlton said he loves Dekle too much to leave. He rebuilt.
"I was raised down here during the summers. I loved it and said when I was grown, I was going to live here," he said. "The cost of building after the storm was quite a bit more expense, but I did it. The quietness, being left alone. That's it. And I love the coast."