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