Ten years ago today, we knew our Friday the 13th (Aug. 13, 2004) would not be a normal day.
Hurricane Charley was churning through the Gulf of Mexico along the southwest coast of Florida, with expected landfall somewhere in the Tampa Bay area. With that in mind, we were not overly concerned, but of course, had made appropriate preparations just in case. Boarding up the windows, gas in the cars, cash in hand, etc.
Employed as a reporter with the Charlotte Sun-Herald and working out of the Englewood office (our hometown), my beat was Sarasota County to the north of Charlotte County. I’d talked with my editor that morning, and secured her consent to work from home that day. So I proceeded to make calls to Sarasota emergency management officials to see what preparations were being made and had my story filed well before my mid-afternoon deadline. We kept our TV tuned to the local news station out of Ft. Myers to monitor Charley’s progress and throughout the morning and early afternoon, it appeared to remain on course for Tampa.
Then, around 3 p.m., Jim Reif, the chief forecaster for the NBC affiliate in Ft. Myers, made the frantic announcement that Charley was turning into Charlotte Harbor and residents should take cover immediately. Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and our subdivision of Rotonda all bordered Charlotte Harbor with the Peace River and Myakka River being its two main tributaries. We had no idea where Charley would go.
My wife and I tried to remain calm so as not to frighten her young son, who has spina bifida, although we were both scared out of our wits at the potential danger we were facing. At one point, while we were waiting, my cell phone rang and I answered. It was Jim Ley, the Sarasota County Administrator, calling to ask if we were okay, which at that point we were.
Then Charley hit with 100 mph winds blasting our house and rain pouring outside. We lost power, but my wife found a radio station, so we could track Charley’s progress. Fortunately, we didn’t take a direct hit in Rotonda; that was reserved for Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda and other towns inland. Again, after the storm passed, Jim called again to ensure we were all safe.
The next day, I reported to the newspaper’s temporary office and received an assignment to cover the three large hospitals. The Port Charlotte hospital was empty, halls dark with the loss of power. The two hospitals in Punta Gorda had sustained damages and were in worse shape. Outside, of one, I saw a FEMA team begin setting up operations. I’ve never been to a war zone, but from the carnage and damage I saw that day, that’s the only way I can describe it.
Charley was a lesson. Pay attention during hurricane season. Have a plan, and know what to do if you’re in danger of a hit. And listen to the emergency management folks. They’re training professionals and know what to do in the event of a disaster like Charley.