OUR POSITION: A natural disaster inflicted pain and hardship. In the aftermath came a stronger place, community.
Mid-August is hell-hot and wet in Florida. People tend to stay indoors at home this time of year, for good reason.
Aug. 14, 2004 — and for weeks thereafter — indoors was no relief for thousands of residents here. They had no electrical power and no air-conditioning, unless they were fortunate enough to get a generator. No lights, except for candles and lanterns flashlights. Anything in a refrigerator or freezer was shot in few days’ time. Water leaked through roofs ripped apart by winds.
Trees and light poles were on the ground or sheered off at the top. Cell phone service was gone. Traffic lights didn’t work. It was hard to find gasoline. In some instances, it was hard to find food.
Aug. 14, 2004, was Hurricane Charley, plus one. Late in the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2004, a tight, powerful hurricane took a turn off toward land as it wobbled up the Gulf Coast. At Category 4 strength, it moved into Charlotte Harbor near Boca Grande, through Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, up the Peace River to Arcadia and DeSoto County, then farther north.
It turned out to be the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida in the 12 years since Hurricane Andrew. For residents of Charlotte and DeSoto counties who lived through it, time is measured in BC and AC — Before Charley and After Charley. It was a terrifying experience. It was traumatic. It was painful.
Fifteen years later, we tend to focus on the good that came from the disaster.
Yes, the community did pull together in a way that restored one’s faith in the ability and willingness of individuals to shelter, feed and clothe their brothers and sisters. Some volunteers soloed; many were affiliated with churches and communities of faith and compassion.
Big American business mobilized in an astounding fashion: From FPL and out-of-state power companies, to supermarket and big-box chains. Insurance companies brought dozens of people to the area, though the adjustment experience was not always satisfying.
The state and federal government responded impressively. The National Guard was mobilized for cleanup and protection. FEMA brought in trailers for temporary shelter, which, in some cases, turned out to be long-term shelter. In the immediate aftermath, the American Red Cross did what it does well in a disaster, staffing shelters in area schools that were still standing and bringing food to those who needed it.
But thousands were dislocated, forced to find a place to live far from their homes. Some just gave up and left the area.
Today, viewed from 3,000 feet up, the infrastructure of Charlotte County and Punta Gorda has undergone an urban-suburban renewal over 15 years. We have beautiful new school buildings and other newly renovated public buildings. Homes have been rebuilt, and they are stronger. New building codes enacted after Hurricane Charley ensure a safer standard of building throughout the state.
Many good things have come in the 15 years after this natural disaster.
But not to forget, this trauma was extremely difficult for many, many individuals.
Nine people were reportedly killed in Florida as a direct result of the hurricane, more indirectly. Many here suffered injuries. It was a difficult, jarring experience. According to longtime Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Wayne Sallade, 11,000 structures were damaged or destroyed and 27,000 roofs were damaged. In all, Hurricane Charley caused $6.7 billion in monetary damages.
Most agree our place and our communities are better and stronger now, defined by a spirit of resiliency.