Hage: Trying to reason with hurricane season

The monument at the Southernmost Point in the United States was wrapped up in plastic on Saturday morning, Aug. 25, to protect it from Isaac. This is probably the most photographed place in Key West.

KEY WEST, Fla. — There’s a state of mind that tourists share after spending a few days in Key West. Many can be heard stating, “I’m

Key West is usually home to sunny skies. On Saturday, the weather was changing, as seen here on the west side of the island at Mallory Pier.

not going home until the Last Flight Out!” That phrase took on added meaning last Saturday when my wife Kathy and I were dancing with a tropical storm named Isaac while spending a week at our home-away-from-home, the island of Key West. It’s also a phrase with a little history behind it. During the middle to late ‘70s there were only two ways to either

It appears that coconuts aren’t the only thing that make good flying projectiles during a tropical storm. Here, crews load newspaper boxes onto a truck for sake keeping.

arrive or depart Key West. One was by car, traveling the old US 1 highway with its infamous seven-mile bridge, and the other was to fly the only airline to service Key West, which was called Air Sunshine. As history goes, Air Sunshine’s

This guy was prepared. He had many gallons of gasoline on the roof of his vehicle after filling up at the gas station.

first flight was at 8 a.m. and the last flight out was at 11 p.m. The airline was affectionately called “Air Sometimes” due to its inability to fly on schedule. During that period, Key West was only visited by a small number of tourists and it was considered one of the world’s best kept secrets. The island captured those who visited and the most often heard comment was: “I’m not leaving until the Last Flight Out!” Arriving at the airport, they would often find that the plane was not flying or it was full. However, this was

The national media, including the Weather Channel, could be found all over the island, including here on Duval Street at Fleming Street.

not cause for despair, in fact, there are still people in Key West from the ‘70s waiting for their Last Flight Out. On Saturday, I was in the very same airport waiting for my very own “Last Flight Out.” We arrived in Key West on Saturday, Aug. 18. As for our departure? Well, they say timing is everything. Back in March when I booked my departing flight for

Many businesses were boarded up. Hopes were, too.

Saturday, Aug. 25, I saw a flight on American Airlines scheduled for 4:40 p.m. It was the last flight of the afternoon and got us home to Minnesota at about 10:30 p.m. It sounded perfect, right? Enter a guy named Isaac. All week long Isaac had been in the news. Forecasters were saying The Keys might get to see a small edge of a tropical storm that was brewing in the south Atlantic. By Thursday night, the “H” word, hurricane, was being floated around as Isaac was picking up intensity out in the Atlantic. By Friday night, the island was being hit by torrential rain storms. Saturday morning we had awaken to a hurricane warning. That caused me to drive out to the airport at about 9 a.m. so I could hear from the proverbial “horse’s mouth” what situation lay ahead. I didn’t like what I heard. I was told the airport was closing at 6 p.m. and would not be reopening until Tuesday morning. That wasn’t encouraging news for a guy with a 4:40 flight who planned to be at work in Princeton, Minn., at 8 a.m. Monday. For the next five hours, we walked or drove the streets of Key West, watching people bunkering down for the storm. Homeowners were nailing their storm shutters shut while business owners were nailing sheets of plywood over their doors and windows. The streets of Key West were empty, except for

Key West was ready for a party.

the locals, who look for any reason to have a party. A hurricane, it appears, is a reason to party. Drink specials with catchy hurricane or

Isaac tie-ins were showing up on sidewalk sandwich boards across town. As you might remember, Isaac was the bartender on the TV show ‘Love Boat,” so the tie-ins were a natural. Our rental car was due back at 2 p.m. We made it through the heavy rain to Alamo by about 1:45 only to find that they had closed at noon because of the storm. I saw an employee through a gate and tried yelling at him through the torrential rain. He was loading cars onto a transport vehicle so the rental cars could be taken to Miami. He wasn’t pleased that we wanted to return our car. But really, what was the alternative? Me ditching it somewhere in a potential hurricane? Much to my dismay, we had to argue with the Alamo employee in the pouring rain to get a ride to the airport. Despite signs saying they were open until 6 p.m., they wanted us to hail a cab to the airport. My rental agreement said I was entitled to a shuttle ride from the car lot to the airport and no hurricane, tropical storm or torrential rain was going to leave me locked inside a chain-link fenced car lot on a now flooding island known as paradise. The Alamo manager had an employee pull the shuttle van out of its temporary, sheltered home and fire up the vehicle while our car was loaded onto a transport vehicle. We were off to the airport for what we believed would be our 4:40 p.m. flight. Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. United and Delta flew planes out of the airport. AirTran brought in a large jet to shuttle people with Sunday and Monday flights off the island. But as airline after airline departed with passengers on their last flights of the day, Kathy and I sat patiently with about 50 other passengers waiting for our plane. It wasn’t on the ground at 4 p.m. It wasn’t on the ground at 4:30, either. At 4:40, when our flight was supposed to leave, the plane was still flying through a storm, somewhere between Miami and Key West. The LED reader board now showed that our departure was set for 5:35, just 25 minutes before the closing of the airport. I was getting a little impatient. I wasn’t prepared emotionally or financially for two more nights on the island. And to make matters worse, the resort hotels had stopped taking new reservations because of the storm. The hotel in which we were staying was shut down completely. Hurricane shelters, however, opened at 2 p.m. At about 5:10, a small propeller plane landed on the tarmac. A few crazy passengers with a sense of adventure walked down the steps of the plane and onto the runway. They ran on the runway through the rain to their arrival gate. With precious time ticking away, the airline decided there would be no time for cleaning the plane. American was going to board us and get us away from Isaac and into the air towards Miami. At 5:23, we

This jewelry story nailed plywood to its front door to protect it from the storm surge.

exited the terminal and went out onto the runway in the rain. We stood on the runway for a minute or two while luggage was loaded. The plane, they announced, was 1,000 pounds overweight. But no worries, they assured us. We walked up the flight of stairs and into the plane. By 5:35 we were pulling from the gate and readying for take-off. With 20 minutes to spare before the closing of the airport, we literally were the “Last Flight Out” and the last people to leave the island of Key West before Tropical Storm Isaac hit the island. By the time the tropical storm reached Key West Sunday afternoon, it hadn’t been able to pull itself together into a hurricane. The strongest sustained winds in Key West reached a little over 50 mph. The storm surge registered at about 3 feet at high tide, and there were no serious injuries reported to police. Being a Minnesotan, I have no doubt lived through winter storms and blizzards far, far worse than what Isaac brought to my life on Saturday. But then again, I know how to live through a blizzard. I don’t know how to live through tropical storms. And when the drama of the day was over Saturday and I was on my little plane to Miami, I was sure glad I was on that “Last Flight Out.”

Jeff Hage is the editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle. Reach him by e-mail at [email protected]

This store owner was preparing for the storm by covering windows and doors with aluminum.