In 2004, Hurricane Charley defied projections with a surprise “right turn” into Port Charlotte, Fla. The town was all but leveled.
Now the community of 54,000 on Florida’s west coast, between Sarasota and Fort Myers, could be in Hurricane Irma’s crosshairs. Current storm projections suggest Irma will make landfall between Naples and Tampa sometime Sunday night after departing the Florida Keys, reports The Miami Herald.
Along with wind gusts of up to 100 mph, Florida’s west coast also faces a dangerous storm surge of up to 15 feet, with likely historic flooding not seen since Hurricane Donna hit Florida on September 10, 1960 – an eerie anniversary.
Those projections put a bullseye right on Port Charlotte just 13 years after Hurricane Charley’s surprise visit.
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In 2004, Hurricane Charley rolled up Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm. Storm tracks put Charley on target for landfall in Tampa. Instead, the storm took a sharp right into Port Charlotte. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The storm demolished about half of Charlotte County’s 12,000 homes and six of its 20 schools, reported The Orlando Sentinel in a 2009 retrospective. Entire business districts were leveled, including one in nearby Punta Gorda.
“It was one of those defining moments,” said Bob Hebert, the official who supervised Charlotte County’s recovery. “It’s hard to think of anything that wasn’t touched by it.”
Residents who couldn’t afford to rebuild moved away, while speculators moved in and drove up prices, creating a post-storm housing shortage. The loss of commercial space sent some businesses into trailers or other temporary arrangements.
Even in 2009, cleanup continued, reported the Sentinel. Remnants of roofs blown off homes in the storm were still occasionally surfacing in canals, and gaps remained in downtown business districts.
But Port Charlotte – and Florida – also learned some lessons from Hurricane Charley’s sucker-punch, reported The Fort Myers News-Press in 2014. Port Charlotte rebuilt its emergency operations center, destroyed by the storm, with direct access to storm tracking data, among other improvements.
The area also has updated its power grid, widened roads to speed up evacuations, strengthened building codes and revised emergency plans.
Local leaders told the newspaper they were satisfied they had done enough to prepare for another hurricane, but noted “we don't want another one to find out.”