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Remembering Charley: 10 years later

August 7, 2014
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

A decade has nearly passed since Hurricane Charley slammed into Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, upheaving lives and destroying property - from coast to coast - within a single day.

On Friday, Aug. 13, 2004, Charley made landfall on North Captiva Island at about 3:45 p.m. With maximum winds approaching 150 mph, the storm sliced across the barrier island, cutting it in half. An hour later, Charley's eye passed over Punta Gorda, devastating that city and nearby Port Charlotte.

The storm then barreled on, crossing central Florida near Kissimmee and Orlando, according to the National Hurricane Center. When Charley's center cleared the east coast near Daytona Beach at about midnight, it had maintained its hurricane intensity. Charley hit South Carolina next as a Category 1.

Charley is listed as the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with the total damage estimated near $15 billion. The storm is also directly responsible for 10 deaths in the States, along with five others.

For those in Cape Coral who weathered the storm - citizens, business owners and then-elected officials - Charley stirs up memories of fear and uncertainty, camaraderie and relief, 10 years later.

"We had planned to stay home," longtime resident Steve Leonard said of he and his wife.

Fact Box

The aftermath

* Charley was directly responsible for 10 deaths in the United States.

* There were also four deaths in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

* The total U. S. damage is estimated to be near $15 billion, making Charley the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Source: NOAA

As the couple, who live in the 5200 block of Skyline Boulevard, continued to watch the news, the hurricane turned. Officials now recommended that everyone south of Cape Coral Parkway evacuate.

"We decided within just five minutes that we had to leave," he said.

With no idea where to go, the couple researched and found a shelter at Diplomat Middle School. As they headed out the door, a fire truck drove through the street and instructed residents to evacuate.

Bob Long, owner of JRL Ventures/Marine Concepts, was at his plant on Pine Island Road as Charley drew closer. With his wife and grandchildren present, he monitored the storm's progress. Upon hearing that Charley had turned and was headed for the area, the group took up shelter in a concrete building.

Hiding in the restrooms with a mattress, Long and his family rode out the storm.

"We were scared," he said. "The kids were and all that."

As Long watched out the taped up windows, the giant aircraft hanger doors to one of his buildings ripped off and sailed through the air. They landed in the next yard over. Soon after, a metal building on the other side of his property was lifted in the air. The wind carried it across the lot to another yard.

"There was just metal flying everywhere," he said. "It was happening so fast."

Long watched as light began shining within the factory building.

"I thought we lost part of our roof," he said. "And sure enough, we had."

Initially, then-City Councilmember Gloria Tate and her family took up shelter at her sister's home because Tate's home was located in a storm surge area. However, as reports came in about Charley's track, Tate and her family were escorted to city hall, as were other officials and department heads.

"It was very traumatic," she said, adding that friends kept calling her to ask about shelters, where they should go and what was going on. "It was a very frightening time."

Hunkered down in a second floor bathroom, Tate prayed for no storm surge for fear her home and others would be destroyed. Soon, they received word from the Emergency Operations Center.

"We were spared from that and we were extremely grateful," she said.

Only later did the family learn that a tornado had ripped the roof off of Tate's sister's home.

For about seven hours, Leonard and his wife stayed at Diplomat Middle to wait out Charley. While it felt good to know that they were safe, Leonard explained that they had brought few supplies.

"If you ever need to evacuate, plan on bringing whatever you need," he said, noting that they saw people with coolers, blankets, pillows and more. "It's not extremely comfortable."

Once the storm died down and it was deemed safe, the couple headed home.

"It was very difficult because some roads had high water," Leonard said, adding that they had to drive on the median at times just to avoid debris and downed power lines.

The couple arrived to find their place almost unscathed - the pool cage had collapsed.

"When you drive up and see your house is still there, that's reassuring," Leonard said. "A lot of our neighbors had serious roofing problems, but ours held."

Long and his family were not as lucky.

"I have six places that were hit," he said, citing a house on Useppa Island, a house on Bokeelia, the Pine Island Road plant and some rental units on Stringfellow Road. "They were all hit."

Long estimated the repairs to the plant alone as $150,000 to $200,000.

"Luckily, nobody was hurt and we made it through, but it was a nightmare," he said.

The morning after Charley, Long's sons traveled to Tampa to replace the giant aircraft doors.

"We started repairs the very next day," he said.

In the days after the storm, Long fought to reach his other properties to access the damage. For example, the road to Bokeelia was littered with downed trees, so he put together a group.

"We started chainsawing our way across the highway so we could get out there," he said.

Tate spent her post-Charley days walking the Cape Coral Yacht Club neighborhood.

"Our first priority was to make sure our residents were OK," she said, noting that they would check whether citizens had food and water. "We knew they didn't have power."

First-responders, like police officers and firefighters, were joined by officials and volunteers.

"All of the council people were out, all of the department heads were out," Tate said. "We went door to door to make sure the people were OK. We spent a couple of days on the road, just walking."

"It was a pretty eye-opening experience," she added.

Tate pointed out that one of her most vivid memories is people helping people.

"What sticks out in my mind is how the community came together. There was just so much camaraderie," she said. "The coordination the city had at the time - they did an amazing job."

That Cape community-mindedness did not stop with Leonard's neighbors.

"Everyone in our neighborhood was very helpful with everyone," he said, noting that they helped one another clean away debris and move branches to the side of the road.

"Most everyone in the neighborhood was without power seven days," Leonard said. "The grocery stores had to throw away everything that was perishable."

Fortunately, the power at their home was only out for about 36 hours.

"We actually had friends and neighbors over for every meal because they didn't have power," he said. "Without power, you really can't do anything."

Storm damage estimates to the Cape rose from $305 million to $600 million.

"There was so much flooding and downed power lines," Tate said. "It was a lot of roof damage, a lot of screen damage and enclosed cages. Where there were trees, there was a lot of tree damage."

It took about almost a year on a waiting list for Leonard's cage to be repaired.

"Some of the neighbors had to wait for their new shingles," he said.

Long only received his final payment from the insurance company two years ago.

"I didn't realize at the time how bad it was or how difficult it would be to get it all fixed," he said, adding with a laugh. "I think they ran out of money or something. They did finally pay it off."

With a decade passed since Charley, everyone held onto something from the experience.

"Charley was totally devastating to us," Long said. "It was by far worse than anything that we had experienced."

Leonard and his wife plan to leave if a future storm has a high probability of hitting.

"When something like that is coming toward you, you're just worried about your own safety, you're not worried about what happened to the house," he said.

"The thing that was so surprising is a hurricane comes one day, but sometimes it takes years for people to build and recover," Leonard added.

Tate reflected on the damage that she witnessed firsthand in Punta Gorda.

"You realized just how blessed the city of Cape Coral was," she said.

"I'm hoping I never have to go through that again," Tate added.



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