By Chris Dixon
Last weekend, Terry Gibson, Surfer mag’s East Coast reporter literally stared into the eye of Hurricane Frances. Dialing his cellphone number late Tuesday, I was quite surprised when this former Palm Beach neighbor of mine picked up. Terry proceeded to report that he was in his air conditioned office in downtown Palm Beach sipping on an “exquisite” cup of coffee — the first he’d been able to have in several days. Apparently downtown had power, but his house still did not.
It seems that Terry had a bit of an adventure in hurricaneland. And by not evacuating like any sane person, he managed to catch a slew of big waves at Reef Road nearly alone — just as the first rain bands began to make their way shoreward. So I fired up the tape recorder and asked him some questions. As usual, the good ol’ boy was at no loss for words.
Chris Dixon: Terry, was this the first big hurricane you’ve been through directly?
Terry Gibson: No when I was in kindergarten, David came through — but it was very minor and short-lived.
CD: Considering that Palm Beach sits right there on the edge of the Atlantic, you’d thnk it would be a prime target more often.
TG: Well, I’m a fourth generation Floridian and you look at the trend through the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, there were quite a few powerful storms that hit this area, but since the late 40’s there really hasn’t been a direct hit. The gulf stream is really close to here and storms tend to track really close to the coast but the Bahamas occasionally slow them down or sort of deflect them. But it’s still just pretty much a matter of luck that we’ve been spared.
CD: When you first saw the storm was looking so strong, did you consider evacuating?
TG: I’ve been saying for the past few years that we were overdue, especially since Floyd came so close in ’99. But this one, when it started showing, I told my parents, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this one’, and I told them to get ready. We considered evacuating, but we weren’t really sure where to run — because the predictions were not sure where it would make landfall. We’ve got a strong house that’s survived a couple of storms and we’re pretty high up, so we just decided to stick it out.
My grandparents stayed with my parents, and I ended up staying with another friend in Lake Clarke shores a community next to Palm Beach.
CD: How bad were the freeways getting out of town?
TG: Well, that was the problem. Everybody who evacuated left on Thursday, I have a friend who went to Tampa and that took 7 hours, but it’s normally 3 and a half. Other friends went to Georgia and it took them 15 hours to get to the state line. That’s normally a six hour trip. By Friday, you would have pretty much run the risk of going through the storm on the highway, so it was best just to stay put.
CD: You said a couple of days before the storm that the sky looked pretty remarkable.
TG: Yeah, in high school I remember reading a book that said that the Seminole Indians could tell if a storm was coming by the clouds and. In the days before Surfline, we used to sort of do the same thing. So it kind of stuck in my memory, but Thursday and Friday nights, as it got close, in the evening, there were these sort of isolated cumulus clouds — each sort of had its own quadrant in the sky and they were just deep purple and lit by the sunset and swirling. It was surreal and eerie.
CD: What about the surf as the storm approached.
TG: I was up at Cocoa Beach for a conference, which is 2 hours north and north of the Bahama Bank on Wednesday and Thursday. There were some waist-high waves coming in. Nothing great, but fun. Then I came home Thursday night and the storm was supposed to hit, but it hadn’t. The next morning, it was close enough that the wind was blowing northeast about 20 to 25 miles an hour — side offshore at Reef Road. So I woke up and was just like, hell, if this bitch is gonna take everything I own, I’m at least gonna take a couple of waves from her. So I crossed over to Palm Beach and kind of skirted a couple of road blocks. The cops weren’t letting anybody on the island, but you could go there one last time from 7 to 9 AM so you could go board up or whatever, I got there around 8:30 and told ’em I was going to help a friend board up his house. I knew that when I got to the beach it was going to be my last session til the end of the storm.
So I rolled up to Reef Road and it was really good. Four to eight foot sets with nobody out. Kind of side offshore, but the faces were clean.
CD: That’s as rare as perfect Lowers with nobody out.
TG: Yeah, problem was, there literally wasn’t anybody to paddle out with, and I could see all the mullett, and the snook, tarpon and sharks feeding on them out there. I figured that would be a very inopportune time to get eaten by a shark.
So I saw a guy paddle out at the cove up at the north end of the beach, but that would have meant a mile and a half walk into a 30 mile an hour wind. So I was about to skip it, when my friend Chris pulled up alongside me. I said, ‘I’m not paddling out by myself, it’s way to fishy’. He said, “well, let’s go anyway”. So we got down to the beach and saw a couple of guys out getting some really good waves — and it looked bigger and cleaner up there. So we decided to hoof it, up the beach into this wind because if the cops saw us, walking up the road, they’d have kicked us off the island.
CD: And it was worth it?
TG: It was great. A couple to maybe 4-5 feet overhead. And a couple of the local groms, Jeremy Wyche and Blake Hanley were out. We probably surfed from 9 to 2 in the afternoon nonstop. It was insane. Barreling, clean, a hundred yards off the beach. I ended up on an airdrop putting my foot through my deck but just kept on surfing because I didn’t know when I could again. Today we still can’t get to the beaches. Oh and while we were out there, we experienced the first of the feeder bands of rain from the storm. It hit us like birdshot.
CD: What about encounters with any of the fishies?
TG: It was just like a nature spectacle out there, everything was feeding like crazy. The snook were popping on the surface and in 30 feet of water, tarpon, jacks, sharks, the birds were diving everywhere. It was obvious that everything in nature knew something was coming.
Later, I also saw, like 6 manatees huddled in the lee of the Lake Worth inlet south jetty. I ended up taking my fishing rod by the spillway where they dump the water out of the Everglades into the Intracoastal. First cast, I caught a 37 inch snook, second cast a 34 incher and third a 28 incher. So we had a feast.
CD: When the storm came in, what were your thoughts?
TG: I went over to my friend Brett’s house and we were just sitting there waiting and wondering where it was going to hit. The eye was, like 60 miles wide at this point — and the northeast side of the storm is the worst to be on. So the boys up at ESM and Kevin Welsh, all those guys, I hadnt heard from them and was a little worried about them because they were on the worst side of the storm. So the southwest side hit us sometime Saturday night. The weather just deteriorated slowly — it was the Chinese water torture of hurricanes. Waiting for the worst and not knowing how strong it was going to get as it went back out over the Gulf Stream. If it had regenerated into a category 4 storm, there would have been nothing to do.
By the time it came to shore, we had winds upwards of 80 miles an hour. It sounded like the world was coming to an end all night long. But fortunately it didn’t intensify all that much.
CD: How would you describe it to Southern Californians who hardly even know what a thunderstorm is?
TG: If you’ve ever been to Costa Rica, it was like the worst thunderstorm you could possibly imagine. The tops of palm trees look like a skydiver with his hair blowing back and the storm shutters — if you ever saw that scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Johnny Depp is trippin’ his balls off and the walls are moving — the shutters are bowing in and out, it looks like they’re breathing. The buildings shake and all night long we could hear stuff bouncing off the house and the cars. And then all over you could hear the transformers blowing — it sounded like grenades going off.
CD: When it started to recede and you went out for a drive, had you seen the area look like that?
TG: Well the last big storm was Andrew, and Palm Beach didn’t really get much of that. The last one I actually went through was when I was in Tennessee and the storm was Opal. It hit all the way up there and some of these old 500 year old oaks were just ripped out of the ground. So no, I had not seen anything like this here. Everywhere fences are down, shingles are torn off roofs, powerlines are all down. It looks like we’re not going to have power til Thursday.
CD: That’s actually better than I expected.
TG: Yeah, well they’re also having a real problem with looters. I’m sleeping with dogs and my shotgun every night. They had an 8:00 curfew last night and I actually came home from a buddy’s house at 9:00 and had to dodge a few roadblocks. They arrested something like 300 people last night for curfew violations. And a friend of mine who’s a Lake Worth cop told me, “Don’t leave your house unguarded. We’ve already had people coming up from Miami just to loot.
CD: How nice.
TG: Yeah it brings out the best and the worst in people. That’s for sure.
CD: Well, what was the most suprising thing about the storm?
TG: Well, the house across the street from my parents has this huge, massive banyan tree and it fell on our neighbor’s house and demolished the roof. There’s another tree by a house I almost bought last year in Lake Worth and that one fell too, but just missed the house. I guess I’m most surprised by all the randomness of the destruction — who got damaged and didn’t. I mean the people who live across from my friend Brett, they’re religious nuts and didn’t even board up their house. They just read the Bible by candlelight and only lost a TV antenna. The lady across was totally boarded up and her roof got partly lifted off. Some of the stupidest people got away scot free and those who were most prepared got worked.
CD: Well, you know the Lake Worth Pier is destroyed.
TG: Yeah, that’s really serious. What do you know about that?
CD: It goes out a ways, then maybe an eighth of it is gone and then it goes back out. All the planks are gone.
TG: They actually designed it that way after the Storm of the Century — so they can just take the planks up and put them back down. But the rest of it — that’s a tremendous loss. That pier is just a landmark to public recreational access at the beach. It’s gotta be rebuilt. You can make the case that part of the East Coast’s competitive legacy began there. I hope they put it back.
CD: So what’s your plan?
TG: Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re a little worried about Ivan right now. If that thing hits, we’ll be devastated. There will be some cheap swampland for sale if it comes through.
CD: Do you think these storms will make any people rethink living in Florida?
TG: I hope so. I think a lot of people were pretty cavalier about moving down here. I have some friends from New York and they were just shivering. They had no idea these things were so strong. And it seems to me that the climate’s clearly warming. Last year, we had a tropical storm in April.
CD: Well, Ivan just became the strongest category 4 storm to form so far south ever.
TG: People need to be aware if they’re gonna move to the coast that these things can take everything you have in a matter of seconds. Including your life. Hopefully the government will wise up a bit and stop giving people money to rebuild properties right on the coast. We’re blowing all this money to build houses and ruin habitat with so-called beach renourishment and jetties, groins and seawalls. It’s ridiculous.
CD: Well, I want to hear a report when you get out on the beach. It’s gotta look pretty different out there.
TG: I’m sure it does. I’ll let you know. I imagine some places are just gone. But you know, homeowners in Palm Beach built as arrogantly as possible. I mean they’ve basically squashed the dunes. I don’t have much sympathy for them at all.
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