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Recall dread of Hurricane Charley to ward off complacency

On Aug. 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley approaches Fort Myers after it was originally forecast to hit Tampa Bay, causing dread.

NOAA

On Aug. 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley approaches Fort Myers after it was originally forecast to hit Tampa Bay, causing dread.

Every year at this time, folks at the National Hurricane Center and emergency operations centers around Florida try to find ways to alert the public to hurricane season, the danger of hurricanes and the need to prepare.

We've all seen the pictures of homes razed to the dirt. We've all seen the flooding and the helpless faces of storm victims. And we have all felt the economic fallout from one of these huge storms.

How do you keep it fresh in people's minds when you haven't had a major storm in eight years? How do you get them to take notice and prepare? What needs to happen?

As we recall the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Charley and three other monster storms that hit Florida in 2004, I am reminded of a few hours that forever altered my attitude about hurricanes.

On the morning of Aug. 13, 2004 — Friday the 13th — a computer feed we get directly from the hurricane center projected Hurricane Charley crossing western Cuba, heading north, then angling right up the mouth of Tampa Bay.

So late in the forecast, with Tampa Bay still in the center of the cone, we were all but resigned to getting hit.

We had not seen this before.

Lots of us had been involved in hurricane coverage for years, many of us sent to devastated areas to write about victims, damage and recovery.

But the prospect of a major hurricane bearing down on the place where we live and work brought a feeling of powerlessness.

For several hours it was like waiting around for a bomb to go off.

We tried to review news coverage plans. We tried to make sure everyone would be in a safe place. We tried to look ahead.

But distraction was everywhere. Long faces, moments of reflection and lots of questions: When would the winds start? How high would the water get? What about your kids?

Charley was still hundreds of miles away, but the dread already was evident in the faces and manner of many reporters and editors.

Quiet exchanges broke out around the newsroom.

Calls went out to family, children, loved ones, mostly about the uncertainty of what was coming.

Riding up the elevator to the newsroom, one young copy editor suddenly broke down: "Are we going to be all right?''

About 2 p.m., everything changed.

Someone yelled out a revised forecast: Charley was taking a right-hand turn, well south of the Tampa Bay area. We may get no more than some light winds.

It was like the lid had been popped off a pressure cooker.

Hours later, as we trickled out of the office, laughter replaced angst. Someone offered to buy drinks. A mild breeze stirred the summer heat.

Charley, meanwhile, was less than 100 miles away.

The storm would intercept scores of Tampa Bay residents who drove east to escape the storm.

Charley would lay waste to homes, businesses and lives across Florida, a horrific and painful reminder of the power of hurricanes.

Recall dread of Hurricane Charley to ward off complacency 04/10/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2014 8:51pm]
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