Stranded Campers Give Varying Stories on Ordeal
Josh Laird had no clue he'd be riding out Tropical Storm Lee in his Volkswagen van when he checked into a campsite Thursday (Sept. 1) for a two-day fishing trip to Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Fla.
Laird was among 71 campers stranded for more than 48 hours after Lee's pounding waves and high surge swamped and shut down the only road in and out at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the Pensacola News Journal reported.
With no way to fish in the stormy weather, the 23-year-old Pensacola man said he subsisted on canned soup and water out of the campground faucet.
"The first thing I'm doing? Getting a huge steak," he said Tuesday afternoon while waiting in a long line of recreational vehicles, cars and trucks poised to be escorted out of the Gulf Islands National Seashore by park officials.
With the first break in the weather on Tuesday, four bulldozers began at 7 a.m. pushing tons of sand and water to the side of a three-mile stretch of road.
Six hours later, most of the 2-to-4-feet deep of soggy, quicksand-like sand was cleared from one lane, a path wide enough to get Airstreams and Winnebagos out.
Most park visitors survived the ordeal in style in their RVs and praised seashore personnel.
"We're happy campers," Sarah Lowery, of Branson, Mo., said about her ordeal. "We knew the road was prone to flooding. So, we knew what we were getting into. This is what camping is about."
She and her husband, Vernon, were among the second wave of 10 campers waiting to be escorted out.
"This was the most awesome Labor Day vacation ever," she said. "I know not everyone would say that. But we were out here with nature. The park rangers and campground host checked on everyone to make sure no one was short on supplies. People tried to make the most of it."
But some leaving the Fort Pickens area were definitely unhappy campers.
"It was a horrible experience," said Julie Amadore, 43, of Thibodaux, La. "It was a huge debacle on the part of the park."
Amadore and three fellow campers were stranded at the Fort Pickens campgrounds on Saturday and were not allowed back in until late Tuesday.
"When we left, the park ranger told us to get back by 2 a.m.," said Cindy Smith, 42, of Morgan City, La. "We gave them three phone numbers. They said they'd call us if anything changed. They didn't. After we ate, we came back at 10:15 p.m. and they wouldn't let us in."
As they scrambled to pack up their 28-foot Cruiser Crossroad, the group complained about the cost of having to spend three nights in a hotel, buy clothes and eat out every meal.
The group was out about $1,000 in expenses they had not counted on. And they were mad.
Seashore Superintendent Dan Brown said campers were warned the road might become temporarily impassible during high tides in the wee morning hours of Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
But conditions unexpectedly deteriorated Saturday evening taking park staff by surprise, he said.
"This was a homegrown storm that started in the Gulf," he said. "It was unpredictable, disorganized, not moving quickly. We had our ears close to the reports. The extent of the storm was not really anticipated."
Forecasts from the National Weather Service shifted the storm's impacts hour by hour, making it difficult for seashore staff to plan, he said.
"At one point on Saturday, the National Weather Service said Florida was not under a tropical storm warning anymore," Brown said. A few hours later, that forecast shifted. Campers would have been evacuated if seashore officials had known the storm surge would push so much sand on the road, so quickly, Brown said.
Getting the campers out was a top priority Tuesday. And work will continue today to clear both lanes, with a goal to reopen the park to the public by Thursday or Friday.
Making it work
Emotions were mixed among the campers leaving on Tuesday — the first sunny day many of them had seen since pulling into the park.
Tor and Connie Enge of Pensacola, who have been married 28 years, said it was "fun" being cooped up together in their 34-foot RV.
"Can't fight Mother Nature," said Tor Enge, 78, a former Norwegian merchant marine. "I got to spend time with my wife, and she couldn't run away from me."
About 10 campers demanded they be allowed to leave on Saturday and Sunday because they had to be at work or school, some leaving behind their campers and vehicles. They were taken out five at a time on an all-terrain vehicle, Brown said.
Among them was Sara Griffin's boyfriend, Sean Cox.
"He had to leave to get back to Fort Benning, Ga.," she said of the Army post. "A taxi picked him up at the park entrance and took him to the airport."
Cox and Griffin, 24, of Benton, Ark., were camping with three other friends. The weekend getaway of sun tanning and fishing, turned into "Pensacola's version of survivor," she said, trying to make light of situation as she waited to in her truck to return home. "We had no clue we'd get stuck out here or else we would have left."
Griffin said they were not given enough information about the potential road problems to make a good decision about leaving or staying.
That was what many campers said, although many said in the end they had a great time anyway.
"We had a blast watching the surf come in," Deronda Wages, 60, of Mobile said about riding out the storm in a 35-foot Winnebago. When she ran out of her medications, everyone in the camp searched around until they found someone who had the same prescription to share with her.
"We've been married 42 years and she was the best person to be stranded with," Paul Wages, 60, said giving his wife a squeeze.
The couple applauded the efforts of park ranger Dane Tantay, who they said stuck with them all weekend to make sure everyone's needs — food, water, ice, medical — were taken care of.
Tantay was there organizing their caravan out of the park on Tuesday.