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Five years after Hurricane Charley, Punta Gorda has emerged better than before

PUNTA GORDA

Hours after Hurricane Charley made landfall on Aug. 13, 2004, two images emerged from this coastal community.

One was a small town flattened by 145 mph winds. Not since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 had the Florida peninsula seen such devastation.

The other was Wayne Sallade, the emergency operations director who became the ubiquitous and hopeful face of a community destroyed.

Today, five years later, both have seen dramatic transformation.

Punta Gorda is a new city. Downtown has colorful rows of new shops, luxury hotels and a fancy convention center. Schools were rebuilt with state-of-the-art libraries and classic architecture.

For Sallade, a 55-year-old native, the storm brought new possibilities. The destruction and turmoil wore him down, but it also reunited Sallade with a long lost soulmate.

Charley changed his life, too.

• • •

All of West Florida held its breath as Charley crossed Cuba and headed into the Gulf of Mexico. From Cedar Key to Marco Island, residents boarded windows and prayed.

On a Friday afternoon, Charley veered east and went ashore in Lee and Charlotte counties. Winds measured at 145 mph, a Category 4 storm that stayed that way for several miles and hours. By Orlando, Charley still packed 100 mph winds.

Federal emergency crews, volunteers and news reporters deployed along Charley's 200-mile path, but focused on Punta Gorda, which Gov. Jeb Bush dubbed "ground zero."

In the city of about 16,000 residents, 11,000 homes were destroyed. Half of those were mobile homes, 90 percent of which were not up to post-Andrew code. Six schools and six fire stations were ruined. About 300 businesses were leveled.

Even the county's emergency operations center had to relocate after Charley peeled the roof back like a sardine can. Sallade moved his staff to the county jail, though he spent most of his time on the streets.

He worked more than 20 hours a day after the storm. Finally, an emergency operations director from another county came into his office with armed guards and told him to go home.

When President Bush flew into the ravaged town, Sallade stood in a line of greeters to shake his hand. Bush gave Sallade a hug and some advice.

"Son," Bush said to him, "you need some sleep."

• • •

It's hard to know how much money was pumped into Punta Gorda after Charley. Relief came from state and federal governments, insurance policies, donations, private investors and new business owners.

The area's $3.2 billion in damage was more than some residents could take. They returned to Northern hometowns or sought jobs elsewhere in Florida.

For those who remained, the five-year recovery stands as an extraordinary example of a small community that pulled together. Sallade calls it "urban renewal by disaster."

"People kept saying it would be 10 years before the city got back to normal," said Jean Farino, Charlotte County's housing authority director.

Sallade said Punta Gorda was fortunate, in a way, to be ground zero in the first of four hurricanes that struck Florida that year. Also, Punta Gorda is relatively small, absent the bureaucracy that could have slowed progress. Renewal projects and upgrades were in the works before the storm.

"After Charley, it was either get it done," Sallade said, "or don't have it at all."

Downtown's courthouse and other historic buildings got a facelift. A three-story parking garage went up for visitors to the new boutique shops and restaurants. Older hotels were rebuilt into more posh accommodations.

A run-down cluster of public housing was wiped out, so the housing authority built Gulf Breeze Apartments, a bright-colored community with volleyball courts and a new playground.

"After Charley, it looked like Baghdad," said 26-year-old Gulf Breeze renter Frank Sanchez. "Now it looks like this."

When visitors come to town, Sallade loves showing off the city's slick new 43,000-square-foot event and conference center, previously an aging auditorium that held Sallade's Charlotte High School prom.

That high school, the area's first, also was badly damaged when the main building's third floor collapsed.

The school was rebuilt and is opening this week. The main building opened briefly last year so seniors who spent four years in portables could experience a real school.

At the grand opening, Sallade took a picture of a hallway on the second floor of the building. It was where he first asked out Vicki many years ago, before she moved to Colorado and fell out of touch for almost 30 years.

• • •

It was hard to imagine things would ever return to normal. Comparisons frequently were drawn between Punta Gorda and Homestead in south Florida after Andrew.

These days, the housing authority's Jean Farino barely hears a word about Charley. The people she sees talk of the economy, foreclosure, a lost job. No one mentions storm damage or unpaid insurance claims.

"We try to forget about Charley," she said. "It was very hard … but it was five years ago."

That may be the biggest surprise of all, said Barbara Degen, a 74-year-old mobile home park resident who has lived in the area about 20 years.

"People say five years," she said, "but it feels like so much longer ago."

• • •

Punta Gorda's a small town, especially for someone like Sallade, recognized almost everywhere he goes.

For many people, his was the first face and voice they encountered after finding their lives in ruin.

In the days before Charley, Sallade was enduring another kind of storm: his marriage was failing. Eventually, his ex-wife moved to South Carolina with their four adopted children, ages 25, 21, 12 and 7.

Sallade, meanwhile, reconnected with Vicki, an old friend from high school who lived in Grand Junction, Colo. The couple had e-mailed before Charley. After seeing Sallade on TV, Vicki moved to Florida to be with him.

They married in November 2005 and often travel to Colorado.

As they built their life together in Punta Gorda, so did the rest of the city. Many say the storm united people of all class, race and religion.

These days, though, it simply feels like your average Florida town.

"Job one for me was to get this city back to normal,'' Sallade said. "I think we're about where we need to be."

In January, Sallade will reach his 30-year anniversary as a Charlotte County employee. He's now the king of a new 31,000-square-foot, $11.5 million Public Safety Building, designed to withstand 170 mph winds.

Sallade is starting to consider retirement. He's thinking about dry, crisp mountain air. He's thinking about anonymity, relaxation and no hurricanes.

When Sallade steps down after 22 years as the county's emergency operations director, he has a new plan: He and his wife hope to move to Colorado.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Five years after Hurricane Charley, Punta Gorda has emerged better than before 08/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 3:41pm]

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