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Monday, August 15, 2011
On Friday the 13th, August 2004, Hurricane Charley was making its way towards the western coast of Florida. Josh Johnson and I were about an hour north of Tampa around 6am that morning when we met up with our good friend John Walker at a hotel. We were all so tired after a long drive through the night, but we have been chasing for years, and drives like this were the norm. Just looking at the radars off the local TV stations in Tampa, I could tell right away that Charley was taking a turn to the right, and I had serious doubts at the time that Tampa was going to take a direct hit. I took a 3-hour nap, and woke up to check out more television coverage and radar presentations. At around 9:30am I knew Hurricane Charley was not going to hit Tampa. The scary thing was, if you watched the local television coverage you would think Tampa was the only spot in western Florida that was in trouble. I made a few phone calls back to my forecasting professor at Mississippi State University, showered, got a quick snack, and started mapping out where we were going to set up.
We got on highway 75 and started to head south. After lots of discussions with our forecasting professor and our own intuitions on the storm, we decided Port Charlotte, Fl was going to take a direct hit. We arrived in Port Charlotte around 1pm or about 3 hours before landfall. What we saw was appalling to say the least. We tried to warn everyone from locals to the police, but nobody would listen to us. Maybe its because were young, but I have to say that I have never been so frustrated in my entire life. Almost nobody was ready for the hurricane at all. Lots of places weren’t even boarded up, and most people were going about their business like it was a normal day. We got a lot of comments like, you don’t know what your talking about, its going to Tampa, your just trying to scare people, or my favorite, were Floridians and we know how to deal with hurricanes. Yes, that may be true if you live in South Florida and went through Hurricane Andrew, but the west coast of Florida hadn’t been hit by a major hurricane in almost 50 years. Nobody had any idea that a monster hurricane was on it way, and its was on a line that would tear right through the citizens of Charlotte county.
At around 2:30pm we got a call that Hurricane Charley was now a major hurricane, category 3, with 125mph winds. We knew at this point that Charley was becoming a very serious situation. Unfortunately, about 30 minutes later, our worst fears came true. We got another phone call; Hurricane Charley was undergoing rapid intensification, and was now a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 150mph. Charley went from a strong category 2 hurricane at 965mb, to a strong category 4 hurricane at 941mb in only a couple of hours. The scary thing is we were receiving all this information while gassing up and eating a pizza we just picked up from a local pizza parlor. That’s unbelievable to me, and still angers me to this day. The last thing I said to the police was where are some concrete buildings, because all these buildings you see are going to be gone in about 2 hours. We scouted the area out very well, and found a cement-parking garage that we would use as our fort in this hurricane. Even at the time, with 4 years of chasing experience, nothing could prepare me for the wrath Charley was about to dish out. I mean, I’m not trying to brag or anything, but we have been in a few hurricanes and seen multiple tornadoes, some over a half mile wide about ¼ of a mile away. To be honest, that was NOTHING compared to the force Charley unleashed.
About an hour before landfall, we got in our car and drove around Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda trying to take some before pictures, and continuing to warn anybody we saw. The winds were picking up quickly, already tropical storm force at this point, so we headed back to our fort right next to the Bon Secours-St Joseph hospital. At around 4:15pm, the eye of Hurricane Charley made landfall in Port Charlotte. I honestly can’t explain to you what I saw. It was unbelievable how fast the winds were. Sustained near 150mph with higher gusts. Everything and anything in its way was destroyed. When you see bricks flying in the air at over 100mph, you know its bad. I look at it like this, tornadoes are the fingers of God, and hurricanes are the fists of God.
The most amazing part of Charley was the eye. I don’t think people understand what its like in the eye of a category-4 hurricane. First off, the winds go from near 150mph to almost nothing in about a minute. Your ears immediately start to pop, and when you venture outside you see almost total destruction knowing it’s only half over. The scariest thing was, Charley's eye was only 5 nm wide (It was a miracle we got inside that!). That is extremely small, much smaller than the eye of Andrew, and near the same size as the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that annihilated the Florida Keys. The first Category 5 hurricane to strike the US in recorded history, with a pressure of 892mb or 26.35”. On average, the smaller the eye, the tighter the storm, and the stronger the hurricane. After taking a few pictures in the eye, you could see the southern eyewall making its way up the street. I couldn’t believe my eyes. You could see it coming up the street, starting to tear everything up as it did. We ran back to our fort, and preceded to take the second shot from Charley, which in my opinion, was as strong as the first shot we took. I have heard there was a wind gust of 173mph near by, which I definitely believe.
When it was all said and done we got in our car and drove around Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. I felt so bad for the people. They really had no warning, and it looked like a bomb hit their county. I have never seen anything like it, and honestly I hope I never see anything like that again. As we drove around, I became madder and madder about the situation and the destruction I was seeing. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that died were killed in mobile homes. Mobile homes are destroyed in 70mph winds, so you can only imagine what they looked like after 150mph winds plus. I kept asking myself, why didn’t the cops warn these people and get them out to at least a stronger structure? The moral of the story to me was that next time I’ll do it myself and not rely on anybody else. All you had to do was get these people, most of which were elderly people, to a much safer cement building.
As bad as it was, it could have been worse. The Captiva and the Sanibel islands helped prevent a catastrophic storm surge. It was only 6 to 7 feet, but without those barrier islands protecting Charlotte County you could have seen a surge closer to 15 feet. I would guess the death toll would have been in the hundreds, even maybe near a thousand if that had happened. After taking a few pictures and trying to see if we could help anyone, we decided to leave and let the military, police, and emergency personal handle the situation. As we left you could see a convoy miles long with military, police, and emergency vehicles coming to try to help. That’s when it hit you that many people most likely died.