Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Florida

The year 3 hurricane paths crossed one spot in Central Florida

The 3-eyed monster: Three eyes of the three hurricanes passed directly over the southern part of the county.
A family Bible was found resting in a tree outside a mobile home that was destroyed by Hurricane Charley. The mobile home was located along a rural stretch of US Highway 17, approximately six miles north of Punta Gorda, FL. The wind was blowing its pages back and forth and stopped a few times on this page in the book of Malachi. The illustration on the left is titled, "Jonah is cast into the sea." The page on the right is the the beginning of The New Testament. [Times (2004)]
Published Sep. 24
Updated Sep. 24

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.

RELATED: Remembering Hurricane Charley’s destruction, 15 years ago today

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Maintainers prepare KC-135s refueling planes to be evacuated from MacDill Air Force Base in August. A new study predicts MacDill and other Florida bases will experience a sharp rise in the number of days when the heat index tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making it unsafe to be outside for extended periods. MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times
    MacDill Air Force Base is predicted to see big increases in days the heat index tops 100 degrees.
  2. Yesterday• Arts & Entertainment
    A visitor feeds the pelicans at the Pier Bait House in St. Petersburg in 2010. Tampa Bay Times (2010)
    Plus, an expert explains how their pouches work, what to do if you catch one on a fishing hook and more.
  3. Pelicans sit on a pier along Boca Ciega Bay in Pass-a-Grille. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    An old limerick ignites a quest for recognition for the big-billed friends of the city.
  4. Sam's Club fulfillment center manager Nick Barbieri explains to a shopper how the new Scan & Go shop works at 5135 S Dale Mabry Highway. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Shoppers in Tampa Bay can now skip the line and cash out alcohol on their own phones.
  5. One of a pair of orphaned panther kittens is being examined by the staff at ZooTampa. The pair, named Pepper and Cypress, so far have shown no signs of the ailment that led to their mother's death, zoo officials said. Courtesy of ZooTampa
    The mother had to be euthanized because a mysterious ailment left her unable to walk.
  6. In this Amber Alert made available by the Jacksonville, Fla., Police, shows an undated photo of Taylor Williams. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, authorities in Alabama say they have found human remains while searching in the woods for Williams. The child was reported missing from her Jacksonville, Fla., home last Wednesday. (Jacksonville Police via AP) AP
    Taylor Rose Williams’ mother, who said her daughter disappeared from home overnight, was charged with child neglect and giving false information to investigators, according to investigators.
  7. St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground and pavilion, is nearing completion. Shown is the tilted lawn in front of the Pier head building that is being created  with Geofoam, soil and grass. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    St. Petersburg hopes to sell naming rights in the Pier District — available for annual payments of $50,000 to $1 million for 10-year terms — to help offset taxpayer subsidies.
  8. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  9. Flood-elevation requirements for permanent Florida Keys homes could mean local ‘tiny homes’ wind up with more square footage than most of the diminutive domiciles. Courtesy of Bayview Homes
    “We cannot keep building the way we always have and expect a different outcome in future disasters.”
  10. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Michael Patrick Nealey, 49, was arrested Monday morning and charged with killing Lucky Miller at a Hilton hotel.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement