I can scarcely believe it’s been a decade and a half since DeSoto County was ravaged by Hurricane Charley. Everyone who was living here that scary Friday the 13th in August 2004 remembers it well, and has stories to tell. It surprised us by changing courses and rampaging up the Peace River, but we won’t get fooled again, like the old song by The Who goes.
If you look around, you’ll still see remnants of the damage, in the form of now-missing homes or buildings, blank spots where trees once stood, and even a few pieces of blue tarp are yet with us as reminders. If you moved to DeSoto County since 2004 and the only hurricane you’ve faced here was Irma in September 2017, it was a far cry from Charley.
We were lucky in that Charley moved through here quickly. Had it stalled and taken its time, our county would’ve suffered a great deal more damage, perhaps with the loss of lives. We hadn’t seen that kind of fury since September 1960, when Hurricane Donna visited us, taking the same path and doing as much damage. The span between them was great at 44 years, and we were fortunate for that.
Where were you that day, when you were surprised to learn that Charley had changed its mind and would come storming from the south? It was expected to make landfall north of here, along the east coast, so there wasn’t much preparation and suddenly everyone was scrambling to secure everything they could and find a safe place to ride it out.
We found out pretty quick that the relatively new Turner Center wasn’t cut out to be a hurricane shelter when a lot of the roof was ripped away and the many gathered there tried to cram themselves into the restrooms to hunker down. It has since been rebuilt better and stronger, and I pray it will withstand any future hurricanes.
As for me, I rode Charley out in one of the two enormous 1941 metal airplane hangars that was leftover from World War II, where pilots had trained. I was still employed in the maintenance department for the Department of Juvenile Justice that had taken over the property when G. Pierce Wood Memorial Hospital was phased out.
I would rather have been home with my family, but several of the crew had to stay behind to help out with whatever emergencies might arise. And so we secured everything we could post-haste and sat tight to wait. And as promised, Charley brought its wind, rain, and tornados. Aluminum structures were mangled and strewn, old trees lost their fight and broke apart, parts of roofs went sailing into oblivion, roads were covered with water, and of course, the power went out.
I wondered about those old hangars, but they stood their ground. Oh, they creaked and moaned, and even leaked some, and several sheets of tin were ripped off their exteriors, but they held fast. And those of us hunkering down there were very grateful.
We did have to secure a few things when the hurricane had moved past us, and gassed up the generators that were running the buildings, water plant, wastewater plant, and the like, and I didn’t get home until after 11 that night. Driving through town was very eerie, as there was no power to be seen anywhere, just black silhouettes of buildings and trees against a sky that suddenly displayed a billion stars.
There’s no shortage of memories and stories about Hurricane Charley, and I’m sorry that we had to endure it. What it did do for our community in the weeks and months after was to bring DeSoto Countians together like family. And with neighbors helping neighbors, plus volunteers coming from all across Florida and some from out of state, we managed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and slowly put the devastation behind us.
I’ll always be proud of what was accomplished in the wake of Charley, and will always know this community is made up of fine folks who can put their differences aside in order to do what’s best for all. I just hate that it takes something as terrible as a hurricane.
The love and concern will always be there, just beneath the surface. May we seek ways to show it when we can.