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Despite El Niño, Florida took beating from four hurricanes in 2004

An upscale home on Captiva Island, off of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, was among the many in that area damaged by Charley. Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne followed.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2004)

An upscale home on Captiva Island, off of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, was among the many in that area damaged by Charley. Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne followed.

It wasn't your typical hurricane season, to say the least.

Ten years ago, the 2004 Atlantic season got off to an unusual start, then continued to surprise as the summer rolled on.

For starters, an early season El Niño had developed in the Pacific Ocean.

El Niño causes warm water to shift from the west Pacific Ocean to the east, stoking upper atmospheric storms that hamper hurricane development thousands of miles away in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

The first named storm that year didn't come until late July.

Then, it was like someone flipped a switch. The next six weeks were hyperactive.

Tropical Storm Bonnie hit the Panhandle on Aug. 12.

The next day, Hurricane Charley crossed Cuba and headed to the Gulf Coast of Florida.

It is unusual for Florida's west coast to get hit in August. Historically, more threats occur in September and October. But Charley's path was altered by a strong low pressure system, turning counterclockwise over the Gulf of Mexico.

If not for this low, Charley probably would've plowed into Mexico.

Instead, it headed north and began to strengthen. Small hurricanes like Charley can rapidly weaken or strengthen, making for nightmare scenarios for forecasters.

For several hours, Charley appeared headed directly for Tampa Bay. But, pushed by that strong low, it took a hard right and made landfall Aug. 13 near Punta Gorda.

Charley was a wind machine, bringing little storm surge and moving northeast across the state in about 12 hours. Amazingly, it was still producing a tornadolike path of damage, as much as 7 miles wide, at inland locations such as eastern Polk County and Orlando.

About a week later a totally different type of hurricane emerged far out in the Atlantic.

Large and slow-moving, Hurricane Frances marched toward a direct hit at Hutchison Island, near Stuart, on Florida's east coast.

I said on the air at the time, "Charley was a sprint; Frances is a marathon."

Coming ashore with winds of 100 mph, Frances produced flooding rains and several hours of gusty winds throughout Central Florida and into the Tampa Bay area over Labor Day weekend.

As Frances exited into Georgia, a more dangerous hurricane was forming off the coast of Africa. Ivan was a classic "Cape Verde" storm: long track, large in size, extreme intensity.

Ivan devastated several islands in the Caribbean Sea.

Tracking around the Bermuda High, Ivan left the western tip of Cuba as a Category 5 hurricane, packing winds of more than 160 mph, then entered the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bermuda High, turning clockwise, kept Ivan away from Tampa Bay and directed it to the Panhandle, where, on Sept. 16, the storm hit Pensacola and Mobile, Ala., as a Category 3 hurricane.

I covered Ivan in the Panhandle and remember as our crew drove back to Tampa Bay, exhausted from a week of live reporting on scene, we got word that a new hurricane had formed and was heading for Haiti.

Hurricane Jeanne brought the worst death toll of the season, killing more than 3,000 people in the central Caribbean nation.

Jeanne seemed destined to head out to sea until a high pressure area developed north of the storm, steering it toward Florida.

On Sept. 26, Jeanne made landfall in the same area as Frances a few weeks earlier. Much like Frances, Jeanne slowly moved toward the Tampa Bay area, producing high winds and heavy rainfall, then exited into the Southeastern United States.

After Jeanne, the switch was turned off.

Late in the season, unfavorable conditions quickly spread over the Atlantic to turn off the hurricane parade and end the season quietly.

What did we learn in 2004?

Florida is in a hurricane-belt. The threat never should be ignored.

All hurricanes are different.

Inland locations still are prone to damage from high winds.

Storm surge depends on the point of landfall and type of hurricane. Charley produced little surge; Ivan produced devastating surge.

Even in El Niño seasons, there is a threat. Not all El Niños are the same.

Despite El Niño, Florida took beating from four hurricanes in 2004 05/12/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2014 8:52pm]
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