Hurricane Charley destroyed Punta Gorda and kept Tampa Bay on edge 13 years ago this weekend

A Punta Gorda, Fla., neighborhood  lays in ruin Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 after Hurricane Charley wasted much of the city Friday. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)
A Punta Gorda, Fla., neighborhood lays in ruin Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 after Hurricane Charley wasted much of the city Friday. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)
Published August 11 2017

All of Tampa Bay breathed a sigh of relief when Hurricane Charley changed track before making landfall in Florida on August 13, 2004. Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda, and other towns, however, suddenly found themselves facing the full brunt of Charley's devastating power. By the time it had made its way across Florida, Charley had left over $13 billion worth of damage in its wake. The Times dispatched a small army of photographers and reporters to the area. Here is what they found.

TIMES | Kinfay Moroti

A family Bible rests in a tree after it was thrown from 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.

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 15, 2004. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos taken by Times staff photographers.



By Chase Squires; Leanora Minai; Lucy Morgan; David Ballingrud

Times staff writers

DEATH: "Significant loss of life' feared as rescuers and cadaver dogs prepare to comb through debris.

DAMAGE: Insured losses estimated at $11-billion, thousands homeless and 1.1-million without power.

At least 13 dead. Hundreds unaccounted for. Thousands homeless and millions without power or water. Property damage in the billions and spiraling upward.

Hurricane Charley's stunning swath of destruction through Florida's midsection became clearer Saturday as federal and state officials began a widespread relief effort.

"Our worst fears have come true," Gov. Jeb Bush said after touring the hardest-hit areas. He called Punta Gorda "ground zero."


"> The front page of the St. Petersburg Times for August 13, 2004.

TIMES | Chris Zuppa

Cars pack the northbound lane of the Howard Frankland Bridge evacuating the area in response to Hurricane Charley.

Among the developments:

As search and rescue efforts escalated, Charlotte County emergency management director Wayne Sallade ordered dozens of body bags and summoned a federal disaster mortuary team to help with the dead. Predicting the number of deaths was going to be difficult until cadaver dogs and search and rescue teams could get to the areas hardest hit, he said. Trees, downed power lines and debris _ even entire mobile homes _ blocked many roads.

RELATED: 2017 Hurricane Guide

"We believe there's significant loss of life," Sallade said, adding later: "I would hope that it would be limited to dozens, if that." The state's official total for Charlotte stood at four.

TIMES | Carrie Pratt

The Beach Shanty Cafe is boarded up along Mandalay Boulevard in Clearwater Beach on Friday morning.

TIMES | Erik Jacobs

A Beretta 380 handgun sits next to the bed of John Chalifoux and Bonnie Chalifoux. The Chalifouxs plan on using the gun if needed to protect their Port Charlotte home from looters.

Insured losses were estimated at $11-billion by Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, making Charley the second-costliest hurricane in history behind Andrew's $26.5-billion. He said Citizens Property Insurance, the state fund, has enough cash on hand to pay the losses. He said he does not believe Charley will have the same effect on the insurance industry that Andrew had because of changes in insurance law.

Throughout the day, help flooded into areas hit by Charley. About 800 state law enforcement officers and 2,000 National Guard members were sent into various areas to support local law enforcement. More are on the way. About 175 federal officials were on the ground in various parts of Florida and that number, too, will grow daily. They are bringing ice, water, generators and rescue teams. Those needing assistance can call toll-free 1-800-621-3362.

Times files

Hurricane Charley approaching the vicinity of Ft. Myers.

President Bush urged prayer for Charley's victims and will visit Florida today to survey the damage. "I wanted them to know that our federal government is responding quickly to provide aid," he said.

About 2-million Floridians were without power early in the day. The number dropped to 1.1-million later.

RELATED: NOAA releases bleak update on 2017 hurricane season

Several medical centers were badly damaged, forcing hospital officials to evacuate patients to other facilities. All three of Charlotte County's hospitals were essentially closed. About 50 people from the Charlotte Regional Medical Center near downtown Punta Gorda arrived with injuries after the storm, said Josh Putter, the hospital's executive director. The hospital had 105 patients but had evacuated all but 22 to other hospitals, including Tampa General.


The front page of the St. Petersburg Times for August 15, 2004.

TIMES | Skip O'Rourke

A mobile home park located near the community of Fort Ogden was almost completely leveled by the force of Hurricane Charley.

Putter said many of the patients rode out the storm in the hospital. "We did really good until windows blew out during the storm and then we had to move all the patients out into the halls."

Charlotte County school superintendent Dave Gayler said most of the county's 20 schools are damaged, some severely. School could be out for a week or two or more, he said.

Cell phone service in areas most hit by Charley was reported down or severely taxed by network congestion, especially in the Fort Myers area and around Orlando. While the cell towers used by wireless carriers appeared to have sustained little damage, in many cases their backup batteries ran out before electricity could be restored.

Gov. Bush, who flew over much of the damage Saturday, said the storm appeared to gouge a new pass into Captiva Island.

Getty Images | Mario Tama

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush comforts a grieving woman after he held a news conference Aug. 15, 2004 in Arcadia, Florida.

Mobile home vulnerability

On Friday, reminiscent of deadly Hurricane Andrew 12 years earlier, Charley pounced on a surprised population with winds of 145 mph, blowing apart buildings, obliterating mobile homes and yanking trees from the ground like weeds.

After pummeling Charlotte and Lee counties, Charley raced northeast through the interior of the state, striking Arcadia, Orlando and the Daytona Beach area before entering the Atlantic.

TIMES | Willie Allen Jr.

(Left to Right) Maria Yetman, 56, and Roy Bilhardt, 62, sit amongst the rubble that was their mobile home at the Palmetto Mobile Home Park in Port Charlotte.

About 15,000 people called Punta Gorda home, many of them living in manufactured homes or mobile homes because they cost a fraction of a conventional home near the water in Florida. Hurricane Charley turned much of the town into ruins.

"It's hard to describe seeing an entire community flat," Bush said after flying over the area. "Clearly, this was where the center of the storm hit."

Charlotte County has 22,000 mobile homes _ 15,000 of them in 31 parks. Many were damaged.

In downtown Punta Gorda, stores were left wide open, walls were missing and the county's emergency management director Sallade said there were reports of looting. He said thieves stole the computers from a damaged county fire station Friday night.

Attorney General Charlie Crist said more than 100 reports of price gouging along Charley's path had been filed by Saturday morning. He promised strict enforcement of state looting and price-gouging laws. "One of the things we will not let happen is to let the victims be victimized again," he said.

TIMES | Skip O'Rourke

Mobile homes just off of Charlotte Harbor were destroyed by the fury of Hurricane Charley

Bush said he is satisfied Charlotte County residents had adequate notice of the approaching hurricane.

"The mandatory evacuation is done by letters _ A, B, C. Charlotte had a mandatory evacuation the day before," he said, "at same time it was given for Lee, Pinellas and Hillsborough. Plus there were thousands of admonitions and 24 hours' coverage from the local news media."

While Bush and Gallagher said they don't believe mobile homes should be banned, they said those homes need to be adequately tied down and park residents should get out in a storm.

"I don't see anything wrong with mobile homes, but you definitely don't want to see people in a mobile home park during a storm, you definitely want to get out of there. . . . I have not seen a storm yet, even a small one, that didn't cause some devastation," Gallagher said. He said a lot of mobile home owners did not have insurance.

TIMES | Skip O'Rourke

Motor homes lay on their sides near the Port Charlotte town of Cleveland after during Hurricane Charley.

TIMES | Scott Keeler

Debris littered the streets in historic downtown Punta Gorda as business owners examined their damages.

Bush said he has directed Secretary of State Glenda Hood to determine whether approaching elections could be affected by the storm. He said he was uncertain whether the Aug. 31 primaries could go on as scheduled in some counties.

"In Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee we may have to go longer. . . . Machines may not be functioning and a lot of public buildings were damaged," he said.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the election was postponed for a week because of the damage in South Florida while the primary election in rest of the state went on as scheduled.

Bush promised federal aid was on the way and said shelters would be built as soon as possible. Michael D. Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said lessons learned after Hurricane Andrew were taken to heart, and aid was arriving Saturday morning, instead of taking weeks as it did after Andrew. He promised life would return to normal in Charlotte County.

"The sun will shine again," he said. "We'll come back stronger and better. Be patient."

TIMES | Scott Keeler

The Southseas Plantation Resort, located on the North end of Captiva Island, sustained heavy damage.

Coast took a beating

Sanibel was an island city under martial law Saturday.

Police roamed the streets by foot and on all-terrain vehicles, telling the few residents around to stay in their houses or risk arrest.

They spray painted orange markings in front of driveways where they had checked for occupants. Police and firefighters roamed the empty streets, along with the occasional city utility truck.

Almost every street was impassable. Where once there was a road there was a patchwork of tangled Australian pine, gumbo limbo and seagrape and fallen power lines. Charley's winds blew so strong they snapped concrete power poles in half.

TIMES | Scott Keeler

An upscale home on Capitiva Island is framed by mounds of debris from a damaged home.

Several roofs of waterfront condominiums had been ripped apart. Screens that once covered large pools lay crumpled in heaps. Downtown, City Hall and the public library were blanketed in debris.

The 7-Eleven and the Over Easy Cafe were closed, along with everything else on the island. The only sign of life was a BP gas station, where local rescue workers gathered for shade and rest.

Bulldozers worked to clear Periwinkle Way, the island's main drag. One Sanibel police officer estimated the bridge to the island would remain closed at least until late today and possibly longer.

TIMES | Carrie Pratt

The downtown Punta Gorda Professional Center at 210 W Marion Ave. just after Hurricane Charley.

At the roadblock on the other side of the causeway, residents tried in vain to get back to their homes. They begged, pleaded, asked when they could return. They flashed their licenses to prove they belonged on the island.

Everyone was turned away.

Sallade, Charlotte County's emergency management director, said the damage appeared to be caused almost solely by Charley's roaring winds, not by the feared storm surge, which never materialized along Charlotte Harbor.

But while it was a blessing to avoid the floods, Sallade said the wind more than made up for it. He said he was puzzled at how Charley grew from a Category 2 storm to a Category 4 monster without much advance notice.

TIMES | Willie Allen Jr.

(Left to Right) Cesar Pares, 59, hugs Cecilia Carr, 55, as she breaks down after Pares found a flag that belonged to her late husband in his living room.

"How did that storm go from 105 to 145 (mph)?" he asked. "Somebody tell me why."

The "why" is not always known to the National Hurricane Center, either. Its forecasters often warn that the rapid strengthening of a storm is not well understood.

Sallade said doubters, those who try to ride out the storm, people who don't prepare, should learn from what happened to Charlotte County.

"I was flabbergasted by what I saw. This is probably every bit as horrific as Andrew, and I was there. We'll be starting over. We lost everything."

Bush tried to sound reassuring. He said the first priority would be to ensure adequate food, water and shelter for the people of Charlotte County. Then, he said, teams would focus on rebuilding the economy.

"People's hopes," he said, "are going to be lifted."

TIMES | Jack Rowland

A convoy of trucks from the Asplundh tree trimming company heads south on Interstate 75, headed to Punta Gorda for the relief effort after Hurricane Charley.

Staff writers Brady Dennis, Jamie Thompson, Joni James, Steve Bousquet, Leonora LaPeter, Bill Adair, William R. Levesque and Louis Hau contributed to this report.

These Times staff writers reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Charley from counties outside the Tampa Bay area: Kelley Benham, Sherri Day, Lane DeGregory, Jeff Harrington, Tamara Lush, Ron Matus, Leanora Minai, Chase Squires and Alisa Ulferts.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @TBTimesArchive