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Hurricane Charley: A look back

August 13, 2014
By ED FRANKS ( ) , Pine Island Eagle

Five days after Hurricane Charley struck Pine Island, the Pine Island Eagle headline read: "Recovering from Charley." Editor Marianne Paton wrote: "Pine Island began showing signs of returning to normal Monday as crews from LCEC, the American Red Cross and the National Guard descended on the island to begin restoration efforts."

Hurricane Charley tore through Pine Island on Friday, Aug 13. Originally, Charley was a Category 2 storm but shortly before striking the island it was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. Category 4 hurricanes have sustained winds of 130-156 mph. According to the National Weather Service, these storms cause catastrophic damage with a very high risk of injury or death to people and pets. Nearly all older (pre-1994), and a high percentage of newer mobile homes, are destroyed completely in these storms. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles will be downed.

Charley had formed as a tropical wave Aug. 4 off the western coast of Africa. It became a "Tropical Depression 3" on Aug. 9 when it was near Grenada and then on the Aug. 10, it was upgraded to a tropical storm and given the name "Charley" by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. After crossing the northern tip of Cuba, the storm headed into the Gulf of Mexico. Weather reports suggested it would make landfall far north into the gulf near Tampa. Then, on Friday the 13th, about 1 p.m., everything changed.

Article Photos

An island boathouse damaged by Hurricane Charley in August 2004.


Jay Johnson moved to Pine Island in 1990. His house is located in St. James City on the water at San Carlos Bay.

"We weren't worried about Hurricane Charley because the storm was originally predicted to come ashore somewhere near Tampa so I figured it shouldn't be a problem," Johnson said. "My father-in-law was 94 at the time living in a manufactured home in Pine Island Cove. Naturally we brought him over to our house. I guess it was Friday about 1:30 when we heard that the storm had turned. Instead of making land at Tampa they were saying that it would come up into Charlotte Harbor. We also heard that the winds had picked up and it had become a Category 3 storm. We made the decision to leave the island and I can tell you we got off in record time. We went to my nephew's house in Cape Coral.

"Charley was a remarkably short storm and by 5 p.m., we were back home," he continued. "I can remember passing through Matlacha and all of the power poles were tilted exactly the same amount like they had been installed that way. St. James City was without water and power for about a week. My house didn't have any damage but my neighbors had considerable damage. Some people weren't back in their houses for maybe 6 months."

"At the time I was chairman of the Fire Commission," Elsie Stearns said. "The fire department was working hand in hand with Emergency Management so I felt I had very accurate and up to date information. We were here when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 but Andrew only skirted the island. Then about an hour before the storm was supposed to hit, I received a call from Fire Chief Bradley letting me know that Emergency Management believed that the storm may hit St. James City and Sanibel as a Category 3 and possibly a Category 4 - he said if you're planning to leave go now.

AA friend of ours just moved into a new home off of Burnt Store Road and she called inviting us to stay there," she added. "We had just arrived at her house when we were looking out the back doors and you could see one pool screen after another being torn off the houses in the neighborhood. My son called from Orlando to let me know that the eye of the storm was directly over Bokeelia and I didn't think we would have a home to go back to."

Jeanette Jones and her mother were living on Matlacha on that Friday.

"At the time, my mother was living with me and she was hooked up to an oxygen machine and had a breathing treatment machine," Jones said. "So when we got the notice that Charley had turned we realized we didn't have enough time to get my mother out. So my mother, being the adventurer that she was, said 'That's OK, we'll get through this and I can go to my deathbed knowing I survived a Category 5 hurricane.' So that's what we did, we stayed in a small fisherman's shack on Matlacha. Mom was tethered to her oxygen machine and I had the generator running.

"After the hurricane was the worst," she remembered. "We didn't have water or electricity for 7 days. Thankfully we did have the generator and plenty of gasoline so I could keep my mother's oxygen running which saved my mother's life. My mother (Irene) was very proud she survived a Category 5 hurricane."

"Hurricane Charley was rough on my family and friends," Phil Buchanan said. "Our house was OK but we had three trees in the pool, no pool cage and so much debris it took me three days to clear a path around the side of my house. Many of my neighbors, however, were much worse off, so I had to spend my every daylight minute trying to help them with leaking roofs, missing windows, etc. Food and water was hard to find.

"Climbing on roofs at age 61 in wind-driven rain, incredible heat, and the suffocating smell of rotting debris is difficult and I overdid it," he said. "I got dehydrated and had a fever of 106.3 with convulsions. I spent a week in the hospital, while my poor wife was left at home to deal with the next two hurricanes by herself (we actually had three hurricanes in about a week, the latter two much less damaging). She broke a finger putting the shutters back up and couldn't get medical help - to this day, she can't bend or use her right index finger. I came out of the hospital weighing a little less but also a little wiser."

"My parents introduced me to Pine Island they moved here in 1977 and I moved into my new house on Pine Island four days before Hurricane Charley," Sonny Koutsoutis said. "I drove down here from Baltimore with my three cats and got here Aug. 3rd or 4th and moved into my new house Monday, Aug. 9th. We all knew the hurricane was coming and my friend left the island to stay with her daughter in Winter Haven. I decided to stay, in part because I didn't want to put my three cats back in the car, but also because I didn't think they'd let me back onto the island because all of my identification said Baltimore, Md. So I stuck it out and on Friday about 2:45 the electricity went off along with the water and then the winds started.

"I was lucky that except for one window break, my house wasn't damaged," he continued. "After it was all over I thought I could offer help. The landlines were working and I called everyone I could think of to see if they were all right and then I went down to St. John's Church to serve food. One of my neighbors had a pool, we called it the 'community bathtub' - at least it was water. Pineland Marina was destroyed and the devastation in Bokeelia was unbelievable. Water came back on first and then electricity came back on Monday about 5 pm."

"My biggest concern was the storm surge," said Jim Frock, owner of Seven Seas Bait and Tackle on Matlacha. "Being right on the water I knew it wouldn't take much for Matlacha to be under water so I left and went over to a friends house near the Midpoint Bridge in the Cape. It didn't take long to realize I didn't go far enough. I was looking out my friends' front window and once the winds started everything and anything went flying by.

"Some of the reports were calling for an 18-foot storm surge and I was thinking that when I get back to Matlacha there isn't going to be anything left," he said. "But as it turned out with the position of the storm the wind was blowing east to west and on my side of Matlacha we didn't have any storm surge.

"When I got back late Friday afternoon, the bridge was still open so I drove over to the other side but couldn't get very far because of the debris. The metal roof over the Citgo Station was blown right off into the middle of the road. The transformers on the telephone poles were lying in the road, wires everywhere and the following day they closed the bridge," he continued. ""I understand why they closed the bridge but everybody was trying to get back and once they got to Matlacha there wasn't anywhere they could go. I had 10-15 people staying here in my store and my house. People put up with it for a day but the following day they started to get angry and they would put maybe 50 people on shrimp boats and take them across to the other side.

"By the third day I was able to get a generator so at least we had fans it was hot as hell and the mosquitos were terrible," Frock said. "We fired up the grill and started emptying the freezers so we ate really good. The worst was not being able to take a shower and some people jumped in the water out back.

"It was so hot that sleep was impossible and I had a 32-foot Trojan docked at Olde Fish House with a generator, air conditioning and TV. I guess it was bout midnight when walked up to the bridge where there was a deputy who wouldn't let me cross. I tried to explain that my house was full of people and I hadn't slept in three days. 'My boat is right over there and I have to go there to get some sleep. Either you can arrest me and put me in your air conditioned car and take me to your air conditioned jail either way I'm going.' So I just started walking across the bridge and he didn't stop me."

Tarpon Lodge (built in 1926), "a piece of Old Florida frozen in time," was severely damaged.

"I was at the Lodge and my wife was visiting friends on the east coast," manager Rob Wells III said. "Emergency services came by telling everyone to evacuate so I left the island and went to stay with friends in northwest Cape that were having a hurricane party. The interesting thing is that the landlines still worked and when I spoke with my parents out on Cabbage Key they were just getting pummeled by the storm. They had communication through the first half of the storm and then lost it. The storm was very quick, I think a couple of hours at most.

"When I got back out to the Lodge the next day, I had to park at the Post Office because that's as close as I could get," he continued. "I hiked on up to the Lodge and saw that the second floor roof was gone and on the Island House next door every roof panel was gone. There was a building next door that had these red roof tiles. And as I checked out the upstairs of the Lodge, everything was this strange red/pink color. It took a while to figure it out but then I realized the pink was from those roof tiles. Some of them were pulverized and others were embedded in the plaster walls upstairs.

"I suspect we had a series of tornadoes because there was a house across the street that just imploded," Wells said. "Relatively speaking, we had a lot less damage than we could have. We had a couple of feet of water inside the Lodge from storm surge. I believe we must have had a 5 or 6-foot surge because there was a seaweed line around the building that was a few feet off the ground. Several contractors suggested that we just tear it down and then we found one with vision. We celebrated our reopening with a New Year's Eve Party Dec. 31, 2004.

"The storm didn't really change Pine Island at all. That's the one nice thing about the island is that it doesn't change. There is a lot of personal accountability here, people face the problem and fight their way through it. Pine Island doesn't change and that's why people come here."

In the aftermath of the storm people on the island knew they were in trouble. But Pine Islanders say it seems like it has always been "neighbor helping neighbor" on Pine Island. Whatever help is needed, service organizations, civic groups and individuals band together to help those in need.

All of the island churches banded together. St. John's Episcopal Church opened its doors offering shelter and two hot meals a day for more than 80 families. The church was one of four places where residents could cool off, get a hot meal, ice, medical attention and meet with FEMA representatives to apply for federal disaster aid. Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church did the same: serving 500 600 meals a day. The Rev. Tom Pohto, who is called "Father Tom" by his congregation, said they opened the Monday following the storm when the facility had neither electricity, nor water, nor telephone service. The Methodist Church opened its kitchen to provide hot meals for islanders. Church members also organized work crews to provide temporary repairs to homes where roof damage occurred. Fishers of Men Lutheran Church also served as a Disaster Recovery Center.

Tractor trailers from across the country began arriving with food, ice and supplies shortly after the storm ended. Collection points were Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, St. John's Episcopal Church, Fishers of Men Lutheran Church, Pink Citrus Mobile Home Park and several other distribution centers. The Salvation Army arrived shortly after the storm and Winn-Dixie brought in food and water for island residents.

Once supplies arrived, life without electric and water became somewhat easier but what islanders needed next was money. The churches on the island then created the Pine Island Disaster Relief Fund at the SunTrust Bank on Pine Island and Stringfellow roads. Donations were tax deductible and 100 percent of the money stayed on the island to help residents who needed it.

Some areas of Pine Island had water and electricity restored in a few days while others took two to three weeks. Although every area of the island had some damage, most of the severe damage was in Bokeelia. Four Winds Marina, Pineland Marina, September Estates, Pine Island Airport and Captain's Cove all sustained severe damage.

Pastor Scott Harris wrote a letter to the editor in The Eagle two weeks after the storm, "Hours are long, emotions are being drained, and adrenalin is the fuel that keeps us moving. We are in a seven-day-a-week recovery effort that won't cease until we have helped to rebuild the shattered lives that a hurricane sought to destroy. It is tough times. But we are a tough people."

Hurricane Charley severely affected the state of Florida. There were eight direct fatalities, 16 indirect fatalities, and 792 injuries attributed to the storm. Property damage was estimated at $5.4 billion, and approximately $285 million in agricultural damage. However, due to Charley's speed (it crossed the Florida peninsula in approximately seven hours) and small size, rainfall along the eye wall was mostly limited to 46 inches (1015 cm).



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