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Reflecting on Disaster: Florida's Anniversary of Hurricane Charley

It has been nine years since Hurricane Charley ravaged the Florida Gulf coastline in 2004, wreaking havoc on the cities of Ft. Myers, Punta Gorda and Orlando. However, in some cases, even nine years has not been enough time to heal all wounds.

"2004 was a nightmare for Florida," AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

Hurricane Charley was the first in a series of storms that hit the Florida coast that year. Charley made landfall in Florida on Aug. 9, 2004, however, not where it was originally expected to strike.

"Charley started in the Caribbean and went northward to Cuba. The initial idea was that it would weaken over Cuba but instead it tracked west," Kottlowski said.

Originally, the hurricane was predicted to hit Tampa, Fla., but instead it curved into Punta Gorda, Ft. Myers and then tracked to Orlando, catching many off guard.

In addition to Charley's abrupt change in direction, the storm also intensified very rapidly. "It went from a weak Category 1 hurricane to a strong Category 4 hurricane within a few hours," Kottlowski told AccuWeather.com.

Once the storm made landfall, it moved very swiftly. The hurricane spawned a few tornadoes, dumped torrential rain and produced wind gusts up to 140 mph. Damaging winds caused most of the destruction in the cities and cost the state millions in damages as power lines, trees, traffic lights and signage were downed. Many of the cities' residents lost parts, if not all, of their homes, and some even lost their lives.

Fellow Floridians Become Local Heroes

In Venice, Fla., a little farther northwest where Charley was projected to make landfall before its abrupt turn, residents of the area recall the struggle between staying in their homes or leaving them behind. The city ordered a mandatory evacuation.

"We were very worried because the day of the storm there was a 94 percent chance that we would be hit," said Venice resident, Barb Connolly. "But we have two older dogs and decided to stay behind. When we drove around, the only three bridges to the island were all raised."

Hurricane Charley never reached Venice, though, and the city never even lost power despite predictions. The storm changed directions quickly and headed through Charlotte Harbor and slammed straight into Punta Gorda, approximately 40 miles south east of Venice.

Barb Connolly and her husband, Kevin, headed to Punta Gorda, two days after Charley had, to visit close family friends, the Ogg family, who they had planned seeking refuge with if they would have chosen to leave Venice prior to the hurricane's switch in paths.

"It wasn't until we went down we realized how bad it really was," said Connolly. "The first day we went down to look, there were no street signs and you couldn't see your way around. People didn't know what to do."

The Oggs, along with the other residents of Punta Gorda, were caught off guard by the hurricane.

"We felt quite prepared to get the outer winds. We had food and water and expected to lose our electricity for a while; we had done that preparation," said Cheryl Ogg. "When the storm turned over Charlotte Harbor we were told it's coming, don't try to get to a safe place because you don't have time."

After the warnings for the city, the front end of Hurricane Charley barreled through Punta Gorda and the Ogg's neighborhood. Cheryl Ogg and her husband, Gary, held their French front doors closed for 15 minutes then said, "everything went still."

"The eye of the storm went right over our house, we could see the outer edges of the hurricane and we looked at the eye," said Cheryl Ogg. "The whole hurricane was only a few miles wide but very powerful."

The couple then returned inside, continued to hold their doors shut and rode out the rest of the storm. After Charley passed, the Oggs, like their friends, the Connollys, were shocked by the damages. The Oggs' home was up-to-date for hurricane standards prior to Charley and unlike their neighbors, they were among the lucky few without damage.

"Debris was everywhere," said Ogg. "The roof of the fire station had been taken off and put down on the other side of an eight-lane highway."

Other than the severe damage, what the Oggs recall the most about Hurricane Charley, however, was the help given following the storm.

"Someone knocked on every door in the county by 9 p.m. that night. People checked to see if everyone was okay, if we needed anything, even water bottles were put by cars," said Ogg. "It was like a little assembly train."

A part of this "little assembly train" were the Oggs' close friends, the Connollys. Upon returning to their home in Venice, the Connolly's decided to go back to Punta Gorda on Sunday, two days after Charley made landfall in the city, to help their local Floridian residents. They brought with them printouts of where people could go to get supplies and a grill.

"There was a lack of communication. Radio stations were telling people where to go to get help, but no one had electricity so they couldn't hear it," said Kevin Connolly. "We had to revert back to like it was in the old times with newspapers because there was no TV, radio or internet."

Becoming local heroes, the Connolly's invited Punta Gorda residents to barbecue whatever they had in their fridges. Due to the mass power outages from the hurricane, groceries in the fridge would go bad. The Connolly couple along with other resident helpers grilled everything from chicken to vegetables and more than 50 local residents showed up to join in.

"It was really touching," said Barb Connolly. "I think it really made a difference. People had something to smile about for a change."

A New Definition for Family "Fun"

Taking a break from everyday work life, AccuWeather's Senior Corporate Consultant Mike Steinburg decided to take his family on a Disney vacation in August 2004. Staying at a motel near Orlando, Fla., his family vacation ended with the destruction brought by Hurricane Charley.

As Charley approached, Steinburg's children played outdoors, carefree. Due to his immense knowledge of hurricanes, Steinburg brought his kids indoors and hid them in the bathroom, the safest place in the hotel suite without windows.

However, unlike Steinburg's family, many people left Orlando and ended up in areas that were hit unexpectedly by the hurricane.

Preceding the storm, one of Steinburg's children described the Charley as "better than most of the rides" in Disney World.

Even though Orlando did not bear the brunt of the storm, sustained winds reached 109 mph and gusts hit 139 mph, Steinburg told AccuWeather.com. While almost all trees were still standing and most buildings remained undamaged after the storm, part of the motel's wall where Steinburg and his family stayed collapsed.

The area did, however, experience power outages that lasted for at least 24 hours and flooding in multiple parking lots throughout the city. Steinburg remembered having problems buying gas two days after Charley due to power outages and floods.

Destruction Inspires a Career Change

Living in Maryland and working as an architect, Jason Foster's passion for hurricanes was simply a hobby. Upon the initial development of Hurricane Charley in the Caribbean, Foster booked a flight to the Sunshine State with a fellow hurricane chaser friend to try to chase Charley.

"We knew Charley was coming from the south, so we decided to start there and move with it up the coast. Oddly enough, we stopped in Punta Gorda," said Foster.

When Charley took a 45-degree turn and headed through the Charlotte Harbor, Foster's crew depended on his architecture background to find them a safe place to ride out the storm.

"Our chase became where are we going to survive," said Foster. "We are an entity that can travel and adjust quickly unlike a homeowner or an elderly person. They can't just have 45 minutes to get things together."

The team sought refugee in the Charlotte County Justice Center, a fairly new building, somewhat hurricane proof in an architectural way. Emerging from the courthouse after the storm, Foster described the scene as an utter mess.

"It was quiet. Because of the shift in the storm, a lot of people didn't manage to get out of the way in time," said Foster. "Buildings collapsed and were flattened; roofs were blown off. It was craziness."

Foster and his crew gathered raw footage from the wreckage and proceeded to make a documentary about Hurricane Charley's fury.

"Charley was the means to get footage for something that I had only heard stories about but had never seen any visual, solid documentary proof that exampled what these experiences actually are," said Foster.

Since 2004, Foster became a resident of Florida and began pursuing a film career. Currently, he specializes in filming severe weather but he took the time to return to Punta Gorda this week for the storm's anniversary to relive and film a recap documentary.

"Charley was such a major experience. It played a huge role in my aspiring film-making career," said Foster.