Charley's Force a Bit Unexpected

The sudden spike in Hurricane Charley (search)'s strength took even forecasters by storm.

Things were going to be bad, warned Florida Emergency Management (search) Director Craig Fugate as he watched a solid Category 2 (search) storm with winds around 105 miles an hour head toward the state's Gulf Coast early Friday.

"And then they're going to get worse," he said.

Few imagined just how much worse.

Forecasters warned Friday morning that the storm was strengthening.

Fugate said its winds were just short of the 111 mph that would make it a Category 3 hurricane and said meteorologists were predicting that's what it would be when it hit somewhere near Tampa Bay.

Then Charley started turning to the east, taking aim at the area south of Tampa Bay and officials were quickly looking at an entirely different storm.

A little before 1 p.m. meteorologists were relaying reports from hurricane hunter aircraft that Charley's winds had indeed increased and it was a Category 3 as predicted.

About 20 minutes later, just as some local officials were learning it had become a category 3, it was upgraded to a category 4.

In Charlotte County, where Charley roared ashore, the head emergency official blasted the forecasting.

"This magnitude storm was never predicted," said Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County. "(Forecasters) told us for years they don't forecast hurricane intensity well and, unfortunately, we know that now."

State officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, defended the forecasts, saying they warned all along that the storm could change course and get much stronger -- and noted that's why officials ordered about 1.5 million people to leave their homes.

"It's nice to remember the message of Mother Nature," Bush said. "Hurricanes are not linear thinkers."

Fugate was adamant that local officials should have been prepared, still he acknowledged: "Hurricane forecasting is not a perfect science."

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said Charley picked up speed after it turned for two main reasons. It moved into an area of the Gulf with extremely warm water and it wasn't counteracted by wind shear as was expected.

While forecasts about hurricane tracks have improved, intensity prediction remains inexact, Nelson said.

"It's very hard to predict rapid intensification like we saw," Nelson said.

But he said that's why emergency officials are told to prepare for a storm one category higher than what is predicted. In the case of Charley, officials predicted a 3 -- and it was a 4.

Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said she and other officials were also surprised -- but not caught off guard -- by the sudden strengthening.

"It was a huge jump, for it to jump up that much, that quickly," she said. "But we weren't caught off guard. We told people it was going to be a serious storm."