ORLANDO, Fla. — Polk County was a patchwork mural of blue-tarp roofs in 2004, a painting created by three hurricanes: Charley, Frances, and Jeanne.
Three eyes of the three hurricanes passed directly over the southern part of the county. In fact, all three official paths came within 2 miles of one another within a six-week span.
Charley was the strongest, a Category 4 hurricane coming up from southwest Florida on Aug. 13 on its way up through Orlando and Daytona Beach. Then came Hurricane Frances, which came on shore as a Category 2 storm on Florida’s east coast, crossing Polk from the other direction on Sept. 5. Finally, Hurricane Jeanne, a Category 3 hurricane that nearly duplicated Frances’ path, passed through on Sept. 26.
Charley brought the strongest winds, and moved quickly, not officially reducing power to Category 1 status until after passing by Polk County. Frances officially devolved to tropical storm status in Polk County, while Jeanne was still at Category 1 hurricane strength, but both slow-moving Frances and Jeanne brought the rain and a lot of it.
By the time Jeanne passed, about 73,000 Polk customers had lost power, and an additional 7,000 filed “total loss” with their insurance companies, which yielded $300 million in damages, according to an Orlando Sentinel report in 2004.
Complicating matters further, transportation was hindered by flood waters. Peace River, which serves as the county’s drainage was already two feet above the flood stage before Jeanne hit. It rose another foot after Jeanne.
Hurricane Jeanne was the final blow of the season for the battered county, and while it was blamed for two deaths according to 2004 Sentinel reporting, reports of property damage were actually minimal.
As Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd recalls, though, it wasn’t because they were miraculously spared.
“We had already got destroyed by two other storms. There wasn’t much left to wreck by the time Jeanne came,” Judd said.
Judd remembers 2004 pretty well. He was a colonel at the Polk County Sheriff’s Department and was coming toward the end of his campaign for the sheriff’s seat. The campaign took a back burner though as the first storm approached.
He and many others that were part of the emergency operations center were collectively sitting in a room under the expectation that Hurricane Charley would be approaching Florida from the west coast without much effect to Central Florida.
That was the case until the center received a new weather report.
“I’ll never forget that,” Judd said. The report showed Charley had changed direction. It would be coming directly through Central Florida, and it would do so as a Category 4 storm. It was compared to a 10-mile-wide F2 tornado, Judd said.
“It was stark fear,” Judd said. “We were told to ‘expect the worst, people are going to die in its path. There will be total utter destruction. Be ready.’”
Paul Womble, emergency management director of Polk County, remembers the fear that came with Charley’s breaking news. At the time Womble lived in Polk County, but he worked as an emergency management contingency planner for Manatee County.
“We didn’t have social media or advanced calling systems,” Womble said. “That meant putting first responders out on the street with blow horns and sirens and PA’s to get the word out. Cellular robustness was not what it was today.”
Communication became one the biggest challenges the county faced as cellphone towers went off air and didn’t have the kind of auxiliary power they have today, Womble said.
Charley’s 149 mph winds tore down houses, uprooted trees and cut power lines leaving 64,000 people in the county powerless — which left some folks who relied on powered wells without water, too.
Womble was deployed to Polk shelters and was in charge of applying mass care and feeding folks.
He spent a total of 13 days doing so.
Most damages came to the communities of Bartow, Fort Meade, Davenport, Lake Wales, Dundee, and Winter Haven, Womble said.
Thirty-four people died directly and indirectly because of Hurricane Charley — five of the victims were in Polk County.
Hurricane Frances was predicted to make landfall 23 days later. Many who chose to “weather the storm,” during Charley, packed up and sought shelter elsewhere.
Orlando Sentinel coverage from 2004 illustrates a picture of evacuees spending 14 hours in traffic to get to Georgia.
Many county residents were still reeling from the effects of Charley.
Frances continued the destruction Charley started with a particularly large impact toward Polk County’s investments.
“We saw homes and businesses get destroyed, but the major impact came to the citrus industry,” Womble said.
In total, the three storms devastated Florida’s citrus supply. The three counties that were affected the most by the 2004 hurricanes were DeSoto, Hardee, and Polk, which made up 35% of Florida’s citrus industry, according to Orlando Sentinel coverage.
Florida’s losses in citrus totaled $200 million with a reduction of 8 million boxes worth of citrus.
Even worse, Central Florida citrus farmers would soon discover the hurricanes did more than knock down trees and premature fruits, they also spread citrus canker, according to data from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
As far as human costs, though, Hurricane Frances spared the county the worst. While emergency responders were very active during the storm, no fatalities in Polk were reported.