Suffolk tourist in eye of the storm

AS HURRICANE ravaged Florida battles to pick up the pieces of the latest assault on their shores, an Ipswich man who experienced the wrath of Ivan has returned to tell his story.

AS HURRICANE ravaged Florida battles to pick up the pieces of the latest assault on their shores, an Ipswich man who experienced the wrath of Ivan has returned to tell his story.

The clean up was underway today after hurricane Jeanne, a category three storm, became the fourth to pummel Florida in a single hurricane season, something that has not happened since 1886 when Texas was the target.

The three other hurricanes – Charley, Frances and Ivan – all hit within the last month and a half, about midway through the June-to-November season.

So far, around 70 people have died in Florida as a result of the hurricanes.

When father-of-three Steve Johns set off the Florida he had been expected a relaxing holiday with friends in Florida's Panama City Beach.

But instead he found himself witnessing the power of Hurricane Ivan, which this month left more than 100 people dead as it hit several Caribbean islands and parts of the USA.

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Mr Johns, 46, of Baronsdale Close, headed off to Panama City Beach earlier this month – only to find that the imminent hurricane was on everybody's lips.

He said: "People were talking about the hurricane all the time and the weather channel was always on.

"I had never experienced anything like that so I wasn't worried. I didn't know what to expect."

But Panama City Beach soon began to resemble a ghost town.

Mr Johns said: "I drove down the beach and most people had gone. The hotels and motels and restaurants were empty."

In the end, after prompting from the police, Mr Johns decided to go and stay with friends in the residential area – only for the hurricane to hit that very evening.

He said: "There were high winds, we were getting reports of tornadoes in the area and there was a curfew between 7pm and 10am.

"Power lines were down, it was too dangerous to drive and 65 roads were blocked in Bay County, which is where we were.

"By one in the morning we had lost power and all we had were candles and a radio. It was really noisy because it was blowing so hard."

But by 2am, Mr Johns decided it was time for bed – and he even slept right through.

"Nobody could understand why I went to bed," he said. "The others had stayed up to see what was going to happen. But I just thought it was like a storm."

While Mr Johns was safe, others were not so lucky.

Nancy King, a 77-year-old woman who lived north-east of Panama City, died when a tornado struck her home, while 84-year-old John Martin was killed in Panama City Beach.

Mr Johns returned to the beach area and saw the destruction.

He said: "There were trees down, the roads were full of leaves, some of the buildings looked like a bomb had hit them and we didn't get power back in the beach place until three days later."

Mr Johns said the area was getting back to normal by the time he left on September 21 – but that some people still did not have power and that some businesses were destroyed.

And while Mr Johns would return to Panama City Beach, he would think twice about being there during a hurricane.

Have you been caught in a Caribbean hurricane? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

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