Hurricane Charley: We’ve come a long way, baby
So, has it really been almost 10 years since Hurricane Charley meandered off-course and visited our community with winds of 150-plus mph? That fateful Friday, Aug. 13 in 2004, will live forever in the memories of those who endured Hurricane Charley’s devastating trek across our pristine harbor and through the heart of our normally peaceful landscape.
When his work was finished, Charley had left an unwelcomed calling card: 11,000 homes severely damaged or destroyed, six schools left in shambles, 27,000 roofs needing to be replaced, three hospitals knocked out of commission, $64 million of debris and a total price tag of $3.2 billion. He took four lives directly that afternoon and his aftermath would see 10 more in the weeks that followed. Charley’s costs were outrageous, but they don’t even scrape the surface when telling his story.
The response and recovery of Charlotte County, and particularly, the city of Punta Gorda, has been labeled “textbook” by disaster experts far and near. By any definition, the hurricane-affected areas have shown resiliency in all aspects of recovery. What was early on labeled “urban renewal by disaster” has by and large been completed.
A visit by anyone not here in a while would find new and stronger schools, hotels, restaurants and public buildings. A beautiful new Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center sparkles along the banks of the Peace River, and professional and medical centers have a completely new look.
Fire stations have been built to withstand the ravages of future storms, as have hospitals. A new state-of-the-art Public Safety Building and Emergency Operations Center stands ready to meet whatever comes our way. However, despite all the good that has emerged from the rubble, questions remain about how much worse it could have been.
Charley was the smallest major hurricane ever to strike the U.S. coast. Its rapid sojourn through Charlotte County at an unprecedented 22 mph reduced the effects of its winds, and its size precluded the deadly storm surge that so many fear and most misunderstand.
Despite being a major component of almost every hurricane that has killed throughout history, Charley’s forward speed and 8-mile radius of maximum winds on the right side mitigated the expected rising tide from the Gulf of Mexico. A larger storm (such as Donna in 1960), just offshore and making landfall in mid-Sarasota County (as did Tropical Storm Gabrielle in 2001), would produce an 18-20 foot surge in downtown Punta Gorda.
The devastating winds of Charley were a tease, making folks who endured and indeed suffered from the storm believe that they had seen the worst a tropical cyclone could offer. But the truth is that those who were here for Charley went through only half a hurricane. In fact, the past three major hurricanes in Southwest Florida, Donna, Charley and Wilma (2005), brought nary a drop of surge to Naples, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda or Sarasota. When you couple that fact with the Regional Planning Council’s estimate that Southwest Florida’s population changes by 50 percent every eight years, you see the challenge of educating new folks who have only heard tales of hurricanes and their winds — but not the killer surge.
The fact is that new storm surge model maps released in 2009 show us that the threat from inundating floodwaters is greater than we had thought. Better accuracy using laser technology, allowed scientists to map Florida’s coastlines and get a better read on just how much water would be driven over land by various storms. This map, coupled with a detailed evacuation study, gives us an idea how much time we have to move people out of harm’s way, and it’s not much.
When storm surge warnings are issued, maybe 36 hours in advance of the storm’s arrival, residents will have precious little time to begin moving out of the area.
To assist residents and keep them mindful of their risk, Charlotte County Emergency Management has installed 9,500 reflective vinyl evacuation zone markers, in red, orange, yellow and green, on stop signs and street signs county-wide. The city of
Punta Gorda does not participate in this nationally award-winning program, which serves to get people moving as soon as an evacuation order is given. In the region deemed the “Most Difficult in America to Evacuate,” we need all the time and awareness we can muster, regardless of how it impacts home sales and tourism.
Hurricanes predate all of us — even the alligators in this paradise we call home in Southwest Florida — and they’ll be plying our waters long after we’re gone. Let’s continue to learn to live with them and take lessons from their infrequent visits.
The next one could be as close as next month, and we must be ready. ¦