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Decade after Hurricane Charley punished Punta Gorda, city is thriving

HURRICANE CHARLEY’s: The boldly named Punta Gorda restaurant is just one example of the teeming progress the storm wrought. Patrons enjoy a sunset on Aug. 3. A decade ago, it was as if the storm hit a giant reset button.
Published Aug. 11, 2014

PUNTA GORDA

The sun rose over the city everyone figured had blown away, and Capt. Ralph Allen scanned the morning's numbers. Not a bad turnout for a weekday in hurricane season, he thought.

Not far from Allen's office — a shed on a pier that stretches into Charlotte Harbor — elderly joggers paced the city's new harbor walkway toward where the new event center, the restaurants, the galleries, the cafes and condos, were all painted in postcard-perfect sherbet hues.

Allen paused thoughtfully. Then he tried to explain Punta Gorda's relationship with the hurricane that almost destroyed it 10 years ago this week. Storms like Katrina and Sandy would surpass it in death toll and property damage, devastating cities, some of which, like New Orleans, struggled to recover. And yet when Allen and others here remember Charley, they express mixed feelings. It was horrible, yes, they say. But they also say that the city is better for it, increasing tourism and property values.

"Back then," Allen said, "if you would have heard someone say Charley was a good thing, they'd have been upset."

The 55-year-old watched with sun-wrinkled eyes as 20 tourists stepped aboard the gangplank of the Island Star. No one spoke the all-too-common refrain Allen heard just five years ago: "I thought this city was blown off the map."

Three blasts sounded from the Island Star's horn. The boat and its riders chugged west toward the gulf, the direction from which Charley came.

• • •

Back in 2004, nothing had been strikingly wrong with this town of 17,000. It just didn't quite conjure thoughts of tropical drinks and lazy days in the sun.

Most of the architecture was an untidy mishmash of trends from the previous six decades. The marina was surrounded by barren lots. Parking lots and a couple of strip malls dominated the downtown. The Punta Gorda Professional Center, one of the larger buildings, looked like a dreary Midwestern governmental office.

"There were a lot of older buildings that were underutilized," said Dean Stainton, owner of Dean's South of the Border, one of only a handful of downtown restaurants back then.

Then, on the afternoon of Aug. 13, Charley, packing 145-mph winds, took a sudden, hard right turn into Charlotte Harbor.

A local real estate agent, his wife and two kids jammed a sofa against a hotel room door. They hid in the bathroom beneath a mattress. A convenience store owner peered out his home's window as his daughter remarked, "It doesn't seem so bad." And then the wind uprooted a tree. A local pub owner ran down the stairs as the bricks from the building's second floor fell at his heels. "Like Indiana Jones," he later said.

No one in Punta Gorda died, though it killed four people in surrounding Charlotte County and 10 elsewhere. It was the city's buildings that took the biggest hit. Of 656 commercial structures in the city's core, Charley damaged or destroyed half. At the time, Charley was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with $15.1 billion in damage.

• • •

The power wasn't even back on before residents began talking about what their city should look like when it was rebuilt.

On the 10th day after the storm, a group of citizens calling themselves TEAM Punta Gorda reached out to an urban design professor at the University of Miami. The group told Jaime Correa they had already raised $250,000.

"I think it was really important to people not to just preserve (the city) but to improve it," said Nancy Johnson, TEAM Punta Gorda's current CEO.

Correa lost his home in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and he had his own memories of top-down government dysfunction after a crisis. So it invigorated him to find the citizens of Punta Gorda and the local government ready to begin.

Correa and his team of urban designers, housing experts, architects, landscape architects, code writers and traffic engineers arrived in Punta Gorda within days of the call. Correa and the community held a series of public meetings in a downtown office.

"We avoided the typical predatory trap of 'the majority rules,' and stressed the necessity of reaching solutions by unanimous consent," Correa wrote the Tampa Bay Times in an email from Haiti, where he was helping to design a new community. "Just one single dissenter would serve to throw away an idea and start all over again."

• • •

The actual recovery proceeded unevenly.

Cleanup crews used forklifts to pile what seemed to be entire communities of mobile homes on the sides of roads, their twisted metal stacked stories high. Crews bulldozed some buildings; others were salvaged.

Roofers and other construction workers packed the city's restaurants and bars when owners figured business would be sunk. Antar Hishmeh, now 63, who reopened his convenience store three months after Charley, discovered many of the workers liked gyros, falafel and cheesesteaks for lunch. The crews often stopped back at the end of the day to buy cases of beer.

"We made double," Hishmeh said of business back then.

John Bockin, a real estate agent, thought about moving, figuring the storm had ruined the market. On the third day after the storm, he received a call.

"It was investors buying a six-lot package," Bockin said. It didn't let up.

"It was like a phenomenon," he said, "where people are calling us from the Northeast and are buying property here, paying $400- or $500,000 and had never been here."

Correa's team finished its 100-page "Citizens' Master Plan" in spring 2005. But it would take much longer to implement the ideas. In the meantime, some people struggled.

Punta Gorda lost a few hundred residents in the year after Charley. The county housed lower-income families in a 551-unit temporary community. Some families stayed as long as two years. Federal aid money poured in. Insurance companies paid out policies, and other residents, like Stainton, the restaurant owner, lost sleep worrying if they would ever see theirs.

Max Doyle, co-owner of the Celtic Ray, had kept the pub's kegs cold with National Guard ice right after the storm. The bar had a working phone and food at "crisis prices," but officials nearly condemned the place later.

Tourism slowed to almost nothing. Capt. Allen bided his time.

The city completed most of the "Citizens' Master Plan" within five years of Charley. Parks replaced the dirt lots near the waterfront. A Sheraton sprung up near the marina, as well as a four-star hotel with an art deco exterior. The professional center turned into a mixed-use building with restaurants on the bottom and condos on the top. TEAM Punta Gorda occupies itself now with development projects, like painting antique bicycles to put on street corners.

"The best small city in Florida" is its new slogan.

"This would not have been possible without the hurricane," said Howard Kunik, the city manager. "Yeah, it was a terrible storm, but it gave us an opportunity to put in place our vision. And we're well on our way."

Allen said the hurricane set him back two years, and the recession another two. Three or four years ago people stopped asking so much about the hurricane. Now, based on tax collections, tourism in the city is predicted to rise 13 percent over last year. And last year had been the highest yet.

"A record year," Allen called it.

• • •

Around 6 p.m., the Island Star returned and the first mate pulled up the gangplank. Just up the new harbor walkway, a crowd settled in for dinner and drinks.

Dean Stainton, who lost a restaurant in the storm, opened a new one last year. He named it Hurricane Charley's. The dinner crowd filled the tables as the sun set over the harbor. They ordered drinks like the "Hunker Down," "Category 4," and the "Mandatory Evacuation."

"It really helped revitalize the city," Stainton said of Charley, "and it really put Punta Gorda on the map."

Contact Weston Phippen at wphippen@tampabay.com or (727)893-8321. Follow @westonphippen.

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