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We were in the cross-hairs. On Thursday evening, Aug. 12, 2004, Hurricane Charley was barreling northward into the Gulf of Mexico straight at Tampa Bay. This was expected to be the first hurricane to hit us head-on since 1921 — and at least a Category 3, at that.

More than 800,000 people in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties piled into their cars and tried to evacuate, turning the Gandy Bridge's northbound span into something resembling the Magic Kingdom parking lot during spring break.

Then came the turn.

About 1 p.m. on Friday the 13th — 10 years ago today — the National Weather Service announced that Charley had swung to the right and acquired a new target. About 3:45 p.m., the storm slammed ashore at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

Though it spared Tampa Bay, Charley — by then a Category 4 — ripped through Lee and Charlotte counties, with winds clocked at more than 145 mph. Then it pushed inland, wreaking havoc across Central Florida.

By the time it was done, Charley had killed 10 people and caused more than $14 billion in damage, making it the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history. It was the first of four hurricanes to clobber Florida that year, a nightmarish run of bad luck.

A decade later, the survivors of Charley's pummeling have pulled together a new life. Punta Gorda calls itself "the best small city in Florida," and the city manager says it's all due to the makeover from Charley.

— Craig Pittman, Times staff writer

See images before and after

Use the handle in the middle of the photo to slide the image to the right to see a before photo and to the left to see an after image.

The SunLoft Center now occupies the site of the Professional Center which was destroyed during the hurricane.

"I lost my job and my home all in one day," said Cecilia Carr as she searched through the items that she would pack into a trailer and haul away to a storage unit in hopes of rebuilding her home and her life in Crystal Lakes mobile home park. "Life has changed. It's just a whole different world. I had to go back to work in order to survive without my husband being here. Things have changed," she said of life after Hurricane Charley ten years later. Carr poses outside of her home, which was built after her previous home was destroyed. "I can't bring back all the memories I had. So you have to start over, it's hard." Among her possessions she lost her grandmother's china closet. "I had my grandmother's china closet that got destroyed. It's hard, even today it's hard, It's unbelievable. If I had stayed here [during the Hurricane] I probably would have gotten killed."

Port Charlotte firefighters had to clean up the roof of the Port Charlotte fire department after Hurricane Charley blew the roof off. At one point there were 14 firefighters taking shelter in one bathroom.

Airplanes at the Charlotte County Airport were tossed around like toys by Hurricane Charley. Devestation was extensive at the airport where Sheriff officials rode out the storm in buildings. Punta Gorda Airport was later rebuilt.

Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda was severely damaged by Hurricane Charley. Fierce rivals Port Charlotte and Charlotte High Schools were forced to share the Port Charlotte campus in the aftermath.

Auto Zone employee Tom Ponzio, center, looks over his former place of employment while his manager, John Sader, keeps watch in case looters show up.

Residents of Windmill Village mobile home park near Alligator Creek sit in the shade of what's left of their damaged clubhouse.

"It was so surreal, it was just unreal. It looked like a bomb went off right after it. I'll never forget it," said Anne Correia of what living through Hurricane Charley was like. Today, she poses with her dog, Ginger, for a portrait near her home in Port Charlotte. After taking in a kitten that was found in the the engine of a truck at the Charlotte County Airport, she named it, "Charley's Angel". She later gave the kitten to a little girl who had lost her cat in the hurricane.

A mural showing the old and the newly rebuilt Sacred Heart Catholic Church can be seen in the parking lot outside of the new Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Punta Gorda.

10 YEARS AGO, TAMPA BAY FEARS WERE SPARED 08/12/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 11:06pm]
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