The death toll continues to rise as carbon monoxide poisoning claims more people in the wake of one of the most powerful natural acts in Southwest Florida history.
Nearly half a million are without power, and some people living on barrier islands have been without clean water or food for days. The Category 4 hurricane that smashed into the coast last week has left nearly 150,000 people homeless.
More than a dozen dead have been accounted for so far; the most recent deaths coming from unsafe burning in enclosed structures.
A statement from the governor’s office sums up the dire conditions: “Our worst fears have come true.”
Those realities from the aftermath of Hurricane Charley in 2004 still linger in the heads and hearts of many locals. The first major hurricane to make landfall here since Donna in 1960, Charley caused more than $15 billion in damage. A “FEMA City” of trailers emerged in Punta Gorda and aerial views of areas such as Cape Coral showed a sea of blue tarps covering rooftops damaged by powerful winds.
From Hurricane Katrina to the remnants of Hurricane Mitch, several storms have flirted with the Southwest Florida coast in recent decades; but three stand out among the rest: Charley, Donna and Wilma.
Forecasters were predicting the night before landfall that Charley would land in the Tampa Bay area as a Category 3. Instead, the storm bucked to the east a bit and strengthened before slamming ashore at Cayo Costa State Park in northern Lee County.
Charlotte County Emergency Management Chief Marianne Taylor remembers Charley well. She stayed at a fire station during landfall.
“We actually lost the roof,” Taylor said. “We had a lot of civilians that showed up at the last minute seeking shelter. Of course we couldn’t turn them away. So when things got intense we had them in the bathroom and covered them with mattresses.”
The aftermath was even worse.
“You see the devastation, power lines are down, street signs are down,” Taylor said. “The first time we got on the road the firetrucks were responding with no windshields because they had been blown out. We had to dig the debris off the (trucks and equipment) in order to respond.”
Charley was one of six hurricanes that formed between Aug. 3 and Oct. 11 that year; but 2005 was even more active — with 12 hurricanes — and brought a second massive storm, Wilma, to Southwest Florida.
The fact that Charley made landfall here was not shocking to experts at the Hurricane Center.
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SOURCE: USA Today, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News Press, Chad Gillis