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News Story
Updated: 08/13/2014 08:00:04AM

Charley roared 10 years ago

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Punta Gorda,FL.,Aug. 16, 2004--Aerial image of destroyed homes in Punta Gorda, following hurricane Charley.
FEMA Photo/Andrea Booher


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• Gov. Bush at the helm for Charley, Page 22

It was 10 years ago on Friday, Aug. 13, when Hurricane Charley came ashore, took a right turn into Charlotte Harbor and wreaked havoc on Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and Arcadia and trekked into the state, slamming into Polk County in the first of three hurricanes that found the county.

Rated as a Category 5 hurricane with 145 mph winds when it made landfall, it took out power in many heartland cities such as Winter Haven, Lake Wales, Fort Meade, Frostproof and Bartow.

After the storm passed and despite the damage, many people had to work, thus denying themselves the time to take care of dealing with themselves and their family.

“It was a summer of hell,” Wauchula’s John Polcaro said.

Harry Williams, a Winter Haven resident, said, “Of the three hurricanes, this was the strongest one.” He was one of the lucky ones, having lost power for just a couple of days.

One person who had much work to do around town was Greg Rhoden, who works for the Bartow Police Department. His was a story that would be familiar to many first responders throughout the area.

“We were off that night,” said Rhoden, who was employed as a detective then. “I stayed at my parents’ house with my family.”

He said a tree went down and destroyed his unmarked police car. His house on Broadway was without power for seven days.

During the aftermath, police worked extra shifts to help people with downed trees, those without power and people who may have been injured.

“You go riding past your house and you see how much of a mess is there. You want to get your stuff back together but that comes last,” he said.

While he was doing this in his air conditioned the car, his wife and children had to ride it out in the August heat. But giving help is mostly what drove him.

“I remember it didn’t matter … it’s what the people needed. Pudge (Lt. David Wyant) would ride around and pick up trash at other people’s houses.”

He added there was also a feeling of teamwork.

“People that did have power let you take a shower. We stayed busy the whole time. We’d get calls for service. After the storm there was not a lot of calls, but a lot of helping people.”

Another who had to go right back to work was Pete McNally, now the head of the Emergency Operations Center in Polk County. At the time he was Emergency Management Program Manager.

“I was at home when Charley passed over,” he recalled. “There was some wind and some damage to my fence and we lost power.”

But not paying a lot of attention to the damage, he went to work when his shift came in at 3 a.m.

“My boss kicked me out and said to go home. I was supposed to come in at three in the morning and by the time I got to the EOC no one was there. We’d relocated to the Stuart Center. That was the recovery center,” he said.

The Stuart Center on U.S. 17 in Bartow was without power but it was in better shape than the EOC headquarters at the Bartow Municipal Airport.

From there, staff helped citizens deal with the aftermath and directed state and national personnel to where they were needed.

“The plan documents was to do response activities from the air base and we would do the county work. The cities would handle themselves,” he said.

McNally said Charley was perhaps the most devastating storm of the three that hit Polk County that year. Weeks later, Hurricane Frances came ashore and that was followed by Hurricane Jeanne. McNally also pointed out that Polk County that summer was also in the outer bands of Hurricane Ivan that followed Charley’s path but continued northward and didn’t hit Polk directly.

“Charley did some direct impacts of the storm and there was a lot of wind and rain,” he said. “There was a lot of damage from the other two as well but the real wind damage came from Charley, though they all had their moments.”

Polcaro went right to work helping those he could and added a positive thing that came out of the devastation was the response to it.

“Half the country sent in trucks to help,” he said.

Ken Nelson, who was working in the public relations department at the Department of Transportation, ignored the damage to his apartment to help others. He said the damage he suffered was minimal, but the focus on roads and his neighbors overshadowed anything he needed to do for himself.

“We were out there making sure everyone knew what roads were open and what was not,” the Winter Haven resident said. “We were making provisions for emergency vehicles.”

He said there was a bunch of traffic on the highways and it made it difficult for emergency vehicles from other states.

“We had to make people aware of that,” he said.

He said the DOT’s work actually began before the storm passed.

“Even before the hurricane we had to tell people and to make sure there were no blockages. A lot of help went into DeSoto County,” he said.

At his apartment, Nelson said despite being in the heart of what hit Polk County, he did OK. He said a tree fell near his apartment but fortunately the other way.

“That could have been devastating,” he said. He parlayed his good luck into helping his neighbors.

“My neighbors had trees hanging and I spent time helping them. A big pine tree had fallen and I helped cut that up. Fortunately a fence was there to break its fall.”

It’s been about that long since Polk County has been impacted by a hurricane and in the last few years, Florida has been spared much damage from the hurricane season that lasts from June to the end of October.

This year could be the same. Forecasters upped the odds for a slow hurricane season last week, predicting fewer storms as record strong winds in the upper atmosphere keep a lid on brewing systems.

Just five to 10 storms are predicted over the rest of the season, said Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Counting Arthur and Bertha — two hurricanes that arrived early in July and August — only one to four more hurricanes are forecast. The prediction for the number of major storms with winds topping 110 mph still stands at up to two.

“But that doesn’t mean the season is over,” Bell warned. “Four hurricanes is a fair amount and all it takes is one of those to make landfall.”

In May, forecasters predicted eight to 13 named storms, three to six hurricanes and one to two major hurricanes.

While welcome, this week’s improved forecast should not be taken as a free pass for the season, Bell warned. Forecasters still can’t say in advance what direction storms may take and even one can make life miserable. Take Arthur, which turned the Fourth of July holiday into a frustrating evacuation for much of the Outer Banks when it struck as a Category 2 on July 3.

“There’s no way to predict so far in advance where a hurricane is going to strike,” Bell said. “Even a slow moving tropical storm can dump a foot of rain.”

(Information from The Associated Press was used in this article.)

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