CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. -- Friday the 13th, August 2004, will go down as the unluckiest day in Charlotte County history. What started out as a tropical depression just 5 days earlier east of the Windward Islands, turned into a major Category 4 storm slamming into Charlotte Harbor by Friday afternoon.
A trough of low pressure moving through the Midwest and a high pressure system just to the north of Charley eventually forced the system to the NW and then NE eventually right into Charlotte Harbor. The sustained winds were estimated to be 145 mph with gusts up to 180 mph.
Charley is now ranked as the 6th costliest storm in U.S. history ($15 billion dollars). Charley ranks 20th with the lowest pressure reading (941 mb) in the Atlantic basin. Thankfully the storm was a tightly packed hurricane with the diameter of the eye less than 10 miles, thus limiting the overall damage. The strong and damaging winds were mainly confined to an area of about 20 miles out from the center of Charley.
Thousands of homes were destroyed, and 9 people were directly killed from the storm in the U.S.
I remember the rumors going around in the newsroom from viewers calling in suggesting the death toll in Charlotte was going to be in the 100s, they were claiming they saw morgue trucks showing up close to the epicenter of the damage near Punta Gorda, Fla. in anticipation of a high death toll.
The amazing thing is that with all the devastation, the loss of life in Charlotte County was thankfully rather small. Six people sadly lost their lives that day in Charlotte, not the dozens or even hundreds that some folks were suggesting.
The scariest thing about Charley was the rapid intensification it went through prior to landfall in Cayo Costa, Fla. just south of Charlotte Harbor. After it made its way through the Western tip of Cuba, it was a Category 2 storm, but in less than 4 hours prior to landfall it went from 110 mph storm to 145 mph.
While covering the storm at ABC 7, I witnessed it going from a Category 2 storm to a 4 in such a short period of time I had to double check to make sure I was reading the bulletin correctly and there wasn't a typo. After this dramatic development, I phoned my parents who were hunkered down in North Port and ready to ride the storm out in their Villa. I told them to grab some important items and go the North Port High School which was near by. Even though Charley never really had a huge impact on North Port, it was worth the piece of mind knowing they were safe in a designated shelter in Sarasota County.
In fact, the scariest part of the storm is when details started to flood into the ABC 7 news desk about a shelter's dire situation in DeSoto County. The Turner Center in Arcadia, Fla. was a designated shelter which was built to withstand winds up to 100 mph. Over one hundred people packed into this structure to seek shelter, but unfortunately they ended up scrambling for their lives as Charley's fierce winds caused part of the roof and wall to collapse at the Center. People reacted quickly to the danger and moved into the hallways and kitchen of the Turner building just prior to the partial collapse. Thankfully everyone escaped injury at the shelter.
Many lessons were learned from Charley which will help us prepare for future storms that may impact the Suncoast. I know from covering tropical cyclones for over 25 years, that it was by far the scariest storm I've ever forecast. At 8 a.m. on August 13th the forecast was for Charley to make landfall into the North end of Longboat Key and Anna Maria island, but as luck would have it for Manatee and Sarasota Counties on that day, the trough of low pressure picked up Charley sooner and made a turn to the NE earlier that expected.
The 2004 hurricane will go down in history as the busiest season for Florida. We were slammed by 4 hurricanes that year, Charley, Jeanne, Frances and Ivan. Lets hope we never see anything like that again.