PUNTA GORDA — Exactly four years and five days ago, Hurricane Charley stomped all over Punta Gorda, indiscriminately snatching roofs from churches, hospitals and homes, swallowing entire streets and then spitting out the rubble.
Hours after the storm passed, residents surveyed the widespread damage and vowed to be ready when the next big one hit.
But on Sunday, they seemed pretty relaxed as Tropical Storm Fay crossed the Caribbean toward Central Florida. No lines formed at the local Home Depot, water was plentiful at the Punta Gorda Crossing Publix and shutters were a rare sight at the Emerald Lake mobile home park.
That was true for much of the Tampa Bay area, too: just another day in sunny Florida.
Some residents in Pinellas County were taking modest precautions. On Sunday, there was more traffic than usual at Home Depot in St. Petersburg, said store manager Jim Kriston.
"They're buying water, flashlights, tarps, plywood and some generators,"' he said. "The basic emergency supplies."
Lifelong St. Petersburg resident Stacey Myers was stocking up on essentials. "Some batteries, candles, that should do me,"' she said.
Kriston said the store will stay open late throughout the storm as long as Fay doesn't pose a direct threat to the city.
Down the street, a line of cars waited to gas up at RaceTrac.
Paul Varga was putting 24 gallons into his red Ford F250 while his children and wife waited in the vehicle.
"I have two gas cans, too,'' he said. "I'll fill them up tomorrow (if necessary)."
The Tampa Bay chapter of the American Red Cross is encouraging families to register on its "Safe and Well" Web site at www.redcrosstbc.org.
Those affected by the storm can leave messages so that friends and family can locate them after a storm or other natural disaster, said Red Cross spokeswoman Abi Weaver.
Late Sunday evening, Pinellas County emergency officials were urging residents to secure patio furniture, gas up their vehicles and refill medications — now.
"People need to be ready to move if we give the evacuation orders," said county spokesman Tom Iovino.
The que sera sera attitude in Punta Gorda worried some emergency management officials, who met late Sunday afternoon to get their communities prepared.
As in Pinellas, an evacuation order could be issued as early as this morning, said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County emergency management director.
"What we learned in Charley was invaluable," he said. "We are doing things very differently … we are telling people this is very serious."
But he knows better than anyone how hard it is to persuade people to prepare for a storm.
"This is a free country," he said. "You can't force anyone to do anything. People still have free will and they make their own decisions."
And often they decide to drink, a hurricane tradition as old as stocking up on fresh water.
At the Celtic Ray pub, regulars gathered for the weekly Celtic jam session and to put off preparing for Fay. Tim and Maureen Kratzer drank several rounds of Guinness to mark Tim's 44th birthday.
Charley wiped out the power in their neighborhood for more than two weeks. A neighbor was decapitated by a tree. Another lost his life when a tree crashed into his house.
"It was devastating," Maureen recalled.
But as of Sunday afternoon, she had few preparation plans.
"You don't want to end up with all that water and canned food and then nothing happens," she said.
Some took note of the potential danger.
Gabriele Childs woke up early to put up hurricane shutters outsider her downtown art gallery Sunday morning.
"I wanted to wait as long as possible before putting them up because they are so much trouble," she said. "My husband said, 'You're foolish if you don't put them up now.' "
Charley dealt $120,000 worth of damage to Childs' home in 2004. The wind blew her front door open, shattered her sliding doors and ripped off parts of her roof as she and her husband hid with their two dogs in the laundry room. She still finds it hard to talk about Charley without breaking into tears.
With Fay, Childs hopes she will be ready to put up a fight.
"Some people are taking their chances," she said. "Not me."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.