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07/31/2014 at 3:45pm

Something Special BoutiqueWhen Charley Came to Call
10th Anniversary of Hurricane Charley: Aug. 13, 2004 

Part I

"Hurricane Charley will never be forgotten by those who live here, but if we never experience the storm we certainly would lose our appreciation for the calm.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen to our island. Not this time, and surely not on Friday the 13th! Ever since Hurricane Donna tore a path of destruction through Fort Myers Beach (as the Town is officially named) in September 1960, Estero Island had been spared a direct hit.

Hurricane Charley was officially forecast to give Fort Myers Beach a swipe of its outer bands on the afternoon of Friday, August 13th, 2004, en route to landfall in the Tampa area. But Charley altered course to charge towards our shores with little warning, and islanders scrambled to get out of the way or batten down in time.

The National Hurricane Center had issued a hurricane warning 24 hours ahead of Charley’s expected landfall, encompassing much of the Gulf coast of Florida, including Estero Island. Tampa was in the center of the forecast hurricane path cone. On Thursday, August 12th, a mandatory evacuation order was released for Fort Myers Beach and other coastal areas, which many (but not all) islanders heeded.

As anyone knows who has been brushed by even the outer edges of such a natural force, to experience the howling winds, slashing rains, storm surge, and above all the dread and uncertainty of a hurricane, is to endure harrowing fear and isolation.

There’s normal time, and there’s hurricane time. When Charley darkened the skies, unleashing raging winds and torrential rain over Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, and Captiva, those on the ground could only hold their breath and hang on for the wild ride. Minutes felt like hours, and hours dragged on endlessly.

Yet Charley proved to be fast moving and fairly compact for a Category 4 hurricane, blasting through in just a few hours, and saving his harshest wrath for Sanibel, Captiva, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and inland communities in DeSoto, Hardee, and Polk Counties.

Fort Myers Beach was spared the worst, but an 8-foot storm surge caused "the Gulf to meet the bay, and seawater covered the entire island for a brief period,” according to WINK-TV Meteorologist, Jim Farrell. Charley’s rampage brought to the island a 5-day power outage, significant infrastructure and property damage, flooding, and the National Guard patrolling the streets.

To the great frustration of residents and property owners, access to the island was barred – by order of Lee County, the Fire Department, and the Town of Fort Myers Beach – until Wednesday, August 18, 2004. Those who had fled in advance of the storm had to cool their heels for 5 days before they could return to assess damage and take care of pets left behind.

Those who rode out the storm on the island didn’t dare leave, as they would be barred from returning. They were left to cope with sticky heat, dark nights, no access to fresh provisions, and fridges full of food going bad.

In Charley’s Grip

All of a hurricane’s facts and figures, of course, get sorted out after the event. Rainfall totals, storm surge height, barometric pressure levels, and dollar amounts of damage are well defined only in retrospect. Watching and waiting, deciding what to do, and living with the consequences in real time, however, is uncertain and highly stressful.

On the ground in Fort Myers Beach on August 13, 2004, residents and visitors stayed anxiously glued to continuous TV weather updates. Many islanders were ill prepared for a rapid evacuation in the face of Charley’s sudden decision to come calling.

Nick Campo, owner of the Beach Theater on Fort Myers Beach and the Marco Movie Theater on Marco Island, recalled:

As Charley came charging up the coast, I was watching Jim Reif on TV in Marco. I remember him saying: "I don’t want to go against the official Hurricane Center predictions, but it looks to me like you folks on the barrier islands from Fort Myers Beach to North Captiva ought to get ready to evacuate or take shelter.”

Some were torn about whether to stay or leave, despite the mandatory evacuation notice. Laurie Nienhaus shared her tale of family conflict:

Both my teens were unhappy. Hurricane parties awaited, and my desire for this mid-west family to remain together in the face of a looming natural disaster was grossly under-appreciated. But all debate ended when Charlie turned at about 2:00 p.m. and simultaneously became a Cat 4.

Well, almost all debate. My Torie Montana felt compelled to plead her case one last time as I locked the front door – perhaps for the last time. I replied with a dead calm – which I, oddly, truly did feel: "Apparently you don’t understand the gravity of this situation,” I snapped. "Get in the *%^&#@< car!” We drove to my husband’s business in Fort Myers.

The Lee County Sheriff and Fort Myers Beach Fire Department closed the two bridges accessing the island, as per policy, when winds reached 50 miles per hour. After that, the 400 to 500 people still on Estero Island had no choice but to hunker down.

Said Nick Campo:

I called Karen Cook, who lives on the Beach and was Manager of The Beach Theater at the time. I told her to get her friends and get into the theater building. I knew it’s a safe structure, built of cement.

So Karen and her pals sat on the balcony under the overhang, sipping wine as the storm hit, and watched roofs flying off, water pouring down Estero Boulevard, trees shredding in the wind and rain.

The theater held up well. All we lost was one door off an air conditioner unit. The south end of the island [where The Beach Theater sits] was much less damaged than the north end.

But then the power went out during the storm, and it didn’t come back on for 5 days.

Jack and Bobbie Capps had elected to stay in their third-floor condo at Fairview Isles, not far from the Beach Theater, on the east side of Estero Boulevard. Said Bobbie:

My husband’s an old Navy vet, and he said: "It’s going to Tampa. We’ll just get some rain and wind.” Then Jim Reif came on TV and said it’s taking a turn toward the Beach. But with just a few hours warning, we weren’t ready to leave. We had a transistor radio so we could keep updated on the hurricane.

I was watching from the balcony. For a while, it was really scary, seeing the bands of the storm come in, wave after wave. It seemed endless. But it really was only about 3 hours, the worst of it. I watched the surge roll in, flooding the streets.

The north end of the island suffered the worst damage. Times Square became a gusher that swelled into a river flowing down Estero Boulevard, carrying tons of sand and debris. And it carried a surprise, according to island resident, Margo Pohland:

Our future son-in-law, on his way to our house during the storm, found a baby manatee stranded in the street.He got a friend, a truck, and a slab of plywood.They rolled the manatee onto the plywood and hauled it to a landing and released it back into the bay.

The Aftermath

Daylight on Saturday, August 14, 2004 revealed a devastated landscape of torn-up roofs, mangled trees, broken pavement, and an Estero Boulevard clogged with several feet of sand. Power lines dangled hazardously. Standing water left dozens of streets awash.

Without power to run the pumps, the island lacked running water and sewage service. Cell phone towers for miles around had been knocked out. Over 400 people were now cut off from the rest of world.

Bobbie and Jack Capps ventured out the morning after the storm. They were astounded at the tree damage, sand, and debris covering the ground. Jack said:

We started to walk around and look at the damage, but soon the Sheriff’s (deputies) asked us to please stay off the road so they could clear downed trees and power lines, and get all the sand off the streets.

The only vehicles you saw for 5 days were utility and power trucks, and bulldozers removing sand. The National Guard came. It was bizarre, seeing all these guys in camouflage with rifles slung over their shoulders.

The storm blew out one of our screens and took down some trees on the property. It was very hot during the day. Our landline phone worked for a while, and our property manager called. He couldn’t get here, but we had a master set of keys. So we checked all 55 units over the next few days. I went through every fridge and freezer, throwing away all the food that had spoiled.

I’m glad I was 10 years younger then [Jack Capps is now 84], because climbing up and down all those stairs in the August heat was exhausting.

Island Sand Paper correspondent Jean Matthew kept a journal about Hurricane Charley, noting:

Dr. Schutt’s house next to Lani Kai has broken in half, but that is the only house I have seen that had that much destruction. I talked to many of the people who stayed and they were just not impressed by a hurricane. They found out different after the storm started.

No one is being allowed back on the island. That is new. In every other hurricane we came back as soon as the wind stopped. But it is so quiet here. It reminds me of the days when I was growing up and only 500 people lived here. We might as well be on Ocracoke Island. There are no birds. No pelicans, no seagulls, no ospreys, no mockingbirds, nothing.

Laurie Nienhaus recalled:

After Charley blew past, the long wait at the wrong side of the bridge was over for us once I paid a man $20 to row us to Matanzas Inn.We began walking to our home, mid-island. So much sand. Everywhere it wasn’t supposed to be. Downed power lines, a roof sitting next to the house it should be resting on, collapsed buildings, cars pushed through curled garage doors – never had we seen such damage in real life.

Margo Pohland and her husband, of Fairview Blvd., had left before the storm, but kept close track of Hurricane Charley’s


Our future son-in-law and friends stayed in their beach rental through the hurricane. If they left the island after the storm was over, they would not be allowed back on.

They were running out of food and beverages so we told them to go to our house and break the kitchen window and crawl in. If the National Guard, patrolling the island, stopped them, they were to call us. We had just bought a new fridge and asked them to empty the fridge / freezer and grill everything they could for food. It saved our new fridge from spoilage and gave them some relief.

People were told to leave their animals in the bathroom with extra food and water. We were told we'd be back in a couple days. It was more than that, and people were desperate to get back to their animals. People started taking to the water to get to the island, so they brought in the National Guard to patrol the back bay so people couldn't boat over here to their homes.

When we drove back from LaBelle, it felt so weird because Home Depot, where we had gone to get a generator, had no power. Calculators and the old roller-type credit card machines were used. Publix only sold canned goods and anything not refrigerated. They had no back-up generators and lost a lot. After that, they equipped their stores with generators. There were no stoplights functioning, and the quiet was deafening.

Nick Ruland, longtime owner of The Fish Monger Restaurant on San Carlos Boulevard – just off the north end of Fort Myers Beach – remembered:

The storm hit hard and it hit fast. I’ve been here for 30 years and it was the first direct hit. Preparedness is one thing, but you can’t ever really be ready for a storm like that. We had a foot and a half of water in the restaurant.

Our old-fashioned landline phone worked, so we let people come in to call their families, employers – whoever they needed to reach.

Some fishermen had come in ahead of the storm and brought fish and lots of ice. I had been selling fish to a restaurant on the east coast, and asked him to send over as much ice as he could carry. We ended up with 10,000 pounds of ice. The managers at Fish Monger and Wahoo Willie’s started delivering ice to the island in dinghies.

Beside the Fort Myers Beach public pier, Beach Pierside Grill’s co-owner, Marty York, found an unholy mess at his restaurant:

Hurricane Charley pretty much wiped us out. The building was 100 percent filled with water – up to the ceiling. We couldn’t even get in here for 5 days, yet we opened again 17 days after the storm.

Some really weird things happened during Charley. The bases were ripped off every one of the tables, and they were all stacked together in the bar, like poker chips. All of the palm trees migrated through the building – some of them went down the hall, around corners, and ended up in a dry storage area. We found the hostess stand down at the Dairy Queen, and it still had all the toothpicks and candy in place on top of it!

Mark List, Production Manager of the Island Sand Paper, and his wife Jo List (former Fort Myers Beach Town Councilor) had planned to stay in their home at the north end of Fort Myers Beach, but decided to leave to ensure the safety of their family.

Mark reflected:

In the future, given the exact same circumstances and the fact that I now have 5 grandkids, I’d make plans to leave, and suggest others do too. If I was by myself I’d probably stay.

I think they [the Town of FMB] handled everything really well. The dunes had to be cleared off the streets before the tree guys could get in and remove fallen branches so FPL could then reconnect the electricity. The pumping stations on the beach had also overflowed, so there was polluted / sewage water on the beach too. If they had let locals onto the beach before that was fixed, it would’ve been a mess, with more people injured by the aftermath than the storm itself.

Janet Sailian

"When Charley Came to Call” -- Hurricane Charley Anniversary coverage will continue in next week’s Sand Paper.

– Publisher’s Note, Special Hurricane Charley issue of the Island Sand Paper, August 18, 2004