When Charley Came to Call
10th Anniversary of Hurricane Charley: Aug 13, 2004
A Community Pulls Together
By Sunday, August 15, the Red Cross was onsite, and the National Guard kept any looters away. Daily meetings were called that included Town staff, the Sheriff’s department, Fire Department, Fish and Wildlife, contractors, electricians, and others striving to get Fort Myers Beach back to functioning. They conducted damage assessments, and made it top priority to reconnect electricity, sewer, and water.
Lee County sent building officials who went from house to house to assess safety for occupancy. Buildings deemed hazardous were marked with an "X” or an orange flag.
Jean Matthew recalled:
They tried to lease generators for the lift stations, but ours were diverted to another community who needs it worse than we do. [Town Manager] Marsha Segal-George kept stressing that the main point is that we feed and give water and ice to the people on the island. She has set up a field station at Diamondhead where we could all go and get ice and food.
Power was restored to the island’s north end on Sunday night, August 15. Through Segal-George’s connections, the island soon got its generators and by Monday, August 16, the sewer pumps were functioning.
As officials set to work, islanders too rolled up their sleeves and reached out to help each other through sweltering days and dark nights, without power or fresh food. Wahoo Willie’s served free food to people in Times Square. Topp’s grocery store distributed goods from its stock.
Said Nick Campo, Beach Theater owner:
We had big, walk-in freezer units at the theater, and they stay really cold for a long time without power. Karen Cook asked me if we could prepare food for the public as it gradually thawed. I said, of course! Karen and her friends brought their grills over, and started cooking on the parking lot under the theater, in the shade.
Karen Cook recalled how a neighborly gesture became an island-wide feeding and comfort station:
We started grilling and preparing food, and we sent people up and down all the streets to let everyone know that we were serving free food under the Beach Theater. My boyfriend at the time, Roy Brown [who later died in an accident] was there from 6 a.m. every day, setting up and cooking. God bless him!
We were grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, making chicken sandwiches and grouper sandwiches. Anybody who had any food to offer brought it, more people brought grills, and we ended up feeding 500 people a day! Even the Red Cross and National Guard folks came by to eat. Our food was better than what they had!
Meanwhile, it was so hot at night that a bunch of us slept on air mattresses on the porch at my friend’s house. She had one of the few lanais with screens that weren’t damaged.
Soon the Beach Theater’s food stores began running low, and owner Nick Campo searched for more sources.
Marsha Segal-George arranged for a couple of shipments of food to come in. Nick Ruland at Fish Monger was sending ice down by boat and then by truck [emergency supplies were allowed over the bridges onto the island]. Crystal Water on Marco Island donated water, and other restaurants in the area provided food. The theater even became something of a first-aid station. Karen Cook was instrumental in all this.
It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. We were feeding hundreds of people every day. It’s one of those things that makes you glad you’re human. In times of crisis, people really come through for each other.
By Monday, August 16, officials had allowed some Publix staff onto the island so they could get the grocery store open, selling only nonperishable food and supplies.
The Fish Monger cooked and gave away food as it began to thaw. Owner Nick Ruland also kept Fort Myers Beach well iced, thanks to a steady resupply from the east coast. Each delivery carried something extra:
When I brought ice in a trailer and forklift across the bridge – 1500 pounds per load – I always took a helper. And I left him behind. Because people just wanted to get in and check on their property.
Jean Matthew reported:
Talked with several people on the island. They say their greatest frustration is not being able to go on and off the island to get supplies. They are certainly no more frustrated than the people in Town who can’t get back to see their homes.
They tell people to bring their own food and water when they come back on the island. Still no gasoline on the island.
Today we found out thatthe house that Mike and Sherie live in on Virginia burned to the ground during the storm. There are four families with no home from that fire. The neighbors have been great and found them all a place to live. The Fire Department was really heroic in trying to put out the fire, and apparently one ofthe firefighters was badly burned. These are great men and women.
Steve and Sheila Roberts said:
We spent about four days cleaning and mitigating further damage and were very tired and discouraged. The Red Cross saw us working in the yard and stopped each day with refreshments and much needed encouragement – bless them.
We had to close up our upstairs porch because the rain found its way into the living space with the windows being broken out. It was months before it was mostly cleaned up.
As recovery got underway, piles of debris and cleared foliage lined the sides of Estero Boulevard, stacked several feet high. A massive dumping ground was created on Bonita Beach Road, growing day by day. Clearing the storm debris and garbage took months.
Getting the Word Out
The Island Sand Papercame through with a special issue on Wednesday, August 18, 2004. Most of the weekly newspaper’s staff had remained on the island; Production Manager Mark List had left, but returned on Sunday, August 15 to put together the issue, titled Hurricane Charley! Fire & Water.
The front page of the newspaper announced, in red block letters, that those with proof of island residency would be allowed back onto the island at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, August 19; all others would be permitted entry on Friday, August 21.
In Mark List’s words:
[On Sunday] I was here on the island producing the Sand Paper, using a generator we borrowed for a bottle of gin (we supplied the gas)and disposable cameras. Tuesday morning I drove up Route 17 (where the eye of the hurricane had gone) to our printer, with all the computers in my van. I remember being in suppressed grief seeing 80 miles of utter devastation.
I set up the computers and got the files to the presses. They printed while I slept in the van, then I drove back Tuesday afternoon with the papers, ready for them to open the bridges and let people back on the island. On Wednesday we passed out the papers to the people coming on the island, showing them what happened and what FEMA info they needed to know.
The paper included a full page of instructions on what to expect, and how to prepare, when re-entering Fort Myers Beach. The list included:
the need to bring one’s own nonperishable foods and water;
health and safety tips;
waste separation and disposal instructions;
services available on the island (food and ice distribution; medical services); and
how to apply for financial assistance from FEMA.
The Island Sand Paperlisted 84 structures designated "Enter at your own risk” due to sewage, water, electrical and/or structural concerns – including the Lani Kai, Gulf Motel, Shamrock Restaurant, and numerous residences.
The Editorial reflected:
NosoonerhadwedeliveredournormaleditiononafatefulFridaythe13th– fromthispointforwardtobeknownas"Charley'sDay"– andwehadtomakeadecisionwhatwe'ddowhenwewokeupSaturdayanddiscoveredafardifferentIslandthenwhatweleftthedaybefore.
Bobbie Capps was grateful. "The first news we got was from the Sand Paper. Thank goodness they got that paper out to give us some information!”
Estero Islanders who have been around since 2004 divide the island’s timeline into Before Charley and After Charley. The storm was a rude wake-up call for the majority who had never experienced a hurricane. It was physically devastating and psychologically traumatic.
Hurricane Charley destroyed countless trees – including tall, older specimens of the majestic coconut palm – and virtually all the sea turtle nests on the island. It mangled dozens of structures beyond repair, some of which remained in their precarious condition for years before finally being demolished. Three motels that once stood at the north end of Fort Myers Beach were razed, leaving a wide-open space now occupied by Crescent Beach [the island’s original name] Family Park.
Hundreds of buildings sustained damage of varying degrees. Flooding broke up the asphalt on streets and damaged water pipes. The 36,000 feet of Estero Island shoreline receded an average of 28 feet, and in parts of the island’s north end, as much as 100 feet.
Tourism in Lee County took a dive, understandably, in the month following Charley: down by 24% compared to the previous August, causing an estimated loss of $10 million in tourism revenue. Hurricane Wilma’s (Category 3) brush-by in October 2005 added further injury to the recovery efforts of Fort Myers Beach.
Every calamity requires a scapegoat. That role fell to the first Manager of the Town of Fort Myers Beach: Marsha Segal-George. She was harshly criticized for the 5-day delay in allowing residents back onto the island. Residents also complained about ongoing infrastructure issues. After 10 years in the Town Manager role, Ms. Segal-George resigned under pressure, less than a year after Hurricane Charley.
Read Marsha Segal-George’s take on Hurricane Charley, and the Town’s response, in the accompanying article: "In the Eye of the Storm”.
Lessons Learned: Prepare for the Next One
Much has changed in the 10 years since Hurricane Charley slammed ashore in southwest Florida.
According to WINK-TV Meteorologist, Jim Farrell, today’s hurricane forecasting capabilities and warnings are significantly more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago.
Among the innovations since 2004:
Better computing power and prediction models mean that hurricane forecast accuracy has greatly improved.
Mandatory evacuation notices are now issued 36 hours in advance of expected landfall, extended from 24 hours in Charley’s day.
TheNational Hurricane Center now provides a 5-day hurricane path prediction, giving more advance warning.
Thanks to the lessons of Charley, predicted hurricane strength (Category 1 – 5) has now been uncoupled from storm surge prediction. Surge height varies greatly depending on the size, structure and speed of each storm.
"If Charley had been the size of Katrina, which was also a Category 4,” noted Jim Farrell, "we would have had up to a 15-foot storm surge.” One can only imagine the loss of life Fort Myers Beach would suffer in such a surge.
We all hope that our island will avoid being the bulls-eye in another major storm’s sights. But islanders shrug off the genuine possibility of another hurricane strike at their own folly and peril. There’s no excuse for lack of awareness and preparation for those who visit, live on, or own property on a barrier island in a tropical zone.
In advance of each hurricane season, the Town of Fort Myers Beach issues Hurricane Re-Entry Passes to islanders and to island businesses. These passes expedite re-entry to Estero Island once a mandatory evacuation order has been lifted. Residents are encouraged to get their pass well in advance.
A vast trove of information, guidelines, and planning tools resides in Lee County’s Hurricane Preparation Guide at http://bit.ly/StormReady9
Get the free LeeEvac Hurricane Evacuation Zone App, and create your own FamilyEmergency Plan by downloading the comprehensive PDF form athttp://bit.ly/StormPlan99
Planning evacuation routes and destinations, stocking a hurricane kit, and making property hurricane-ready well in advance of the June 1 – November 30 hurricane season can provide peace of mind, and save precious time, in the event another Charley comes calling.