Over the next few hours our trio broadcast to listeners in our market, and several surrounding cities, from an EOC hallway. We bounced off each other, talking until our voices were scratchy. I pulled in EOC officials for live interviews about the storm. Our meteorologist talked about the hurricane's track and what to expect. We bantered, recapping all the information we know at that point. But mostly we kept people company in a dark hour.
After it was over we'd find out how needed our voices were. Local broadcasters performed the ultimate public service that day -- literally saving people's lives. Homeowners watching their roofs blow off listened and crept underneath mattresses when we advised them to. People sitting in their living rooms shut themselves into closets and braced themselves in hallways, based on our advice. Southwest Floridians who had not prepared for such a destructive hurricane got life-saving tips from us as the ugliest storm they had ever seen passed over them.
In my life I've never felt more helpful. When you cut out all the promos, all the research, all the frills and makeup, actual broadcasting is the most powerful medium out there. We stayed on air as long as we could. But slowly the storm peeled our coverage apart. First our video signal failed so we were doing what's known as "radio on television." Then Charley's winds took out our transmitter, when the eye passed over Cape Coral (just six miles to the east of Fox 4).
We were back on air 12 hours later. But even though there was a gap in coverage for our viewers, there was no lull for me. I left EOC with a photographer as soon as the winds dropped down to about 60 mph, and we started videotaping everything. Power lines were dancing in the wind. Solid old trees were uprooted and lying like dead bodies in the road. Homes were caved in, vehicles tossed onto their sides like matchbox cars. Windows everywhere were shattered, and the protective plywood had warped inward from Charley's gusts.
In the weeks that followed I found many stories. I interviewed uninsured families who'd lost their homes. I watched people cry as they told me about the frightening hours they'd spent underneath their mattresses. Low-income families had lost the first home they had worked so hard to build. People lost their jobs because their workplaces were totaled. Stray animals wandered homeless in many neighborhoods; adoption drives were organized to find them homes. School kids spent weeks at home not learning, because their gyms and classrooms were wiped out.
The devastation was worst in our county's tourist-destination areas, the barrier islands like Sanibel and Captiva. They resembled jungles, with so much landscape damage ruining their once-picturesque spaces. Charlotte County, to the north of us, is where most of the residential damage happened. The people up there went weeks without power and water, and entire mobile home villages were wiped out.
But the strength of human kindness was everywhere. Within one day food was being passed around, the National Guard was directing traffic on our streets, and relief workers were cleaning up debris. That 15-to-18-foot storm surge they were talking about never happened because Charley's eye passed so quickly. The barrier islands, however, were under water. And I spent many days in boots wading through streets that had become lakes.
Thankfully, my dog lived. The executive producer had taken Bailey during the evacuation. And the Fox 4 building, amazingly, withstood the storm. There was a lot of damage -- besides the transmitter, several trees fell on the building and water came in through the door, turning everything to mold. The station got back on air running on generator power, but we were without phone lines, cable, and Internet service for days -- not a great situation when you're running an information-gathering and -disseminating service!