Hurricane Charley 15 years later: A community in ruins left stronger, better

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If you were in Southwest Florida in 2004, it’s a day you will never forget. Hurricane Charley made landfall as a Category 4 storm 15 years ago Tuesday.

The destructive hurricane took 10 lives and caused $15.11 billion worth of damage.

A storm that was supposed to impact Tampa made a fateful turn last-minute, putting Southwest Florida in its crosshairs, leaving little time to evacuate.

Hearing about a sudden increase in wind strength and potential storm surges coming within hours shook many as everyone braced for the worst.

Dean Stainton, president of Stainton Corp. recalled that day, “Really thought it was going to go to Tampa until that morning when watching TV and it said it was going to go down Charlotte Harbor.”

Ultimately, the eye first made landfall near Cayo Costa, just north of Captiva, before honing in on Punta Gorda and the rest of Charlotte County.

When the storm passed, residents and business owners found downed trees, destroyed homes and buildings and a city in pieces.

“In the morning I came down and when I seen it I cried,” said Susan Polimeni, assistant general manager at Dean’s South of the Border. “Our neighbors would be like going down the road with trailers, with food and water.”

Hundreds of volunteers came together to create “Team Punta Gorda.”

Nancy Johnson is the CEO of Team Punta Gorda, “There was a group of citizens who were very concerned about the vision and who was minding the future.”

The original group raised $250,000 in eight weeks to hire a planning firm and work with the city to create Punta Gorda’s “Citizens Master Plan.

“The team provided the spark in the vehicle for people to come together to rebuild this town,” Johnson  said.

They focused on public spaces, giving life to the Sunloft Center, and the Harborwalk but many say Punta Gorda’s biggest accomplishment after Hurricane Charley was unifying the community.

“Everybody was helping everybody,” siad Linda Ciaccio, a bar manager. “It was nice where everybody did come together.”

15 years after Charley, Punta Gorda continues to evolve.

The city is in the process of updating that master plan, taking climate change into consideration to limit the impact natural disasters will have on the city in the future.

Breakdown by the numbers

  • 5,200 homes were unlivable after Charley.
  • Within 11 months of the hurricane, the county inspected 87,844 more permitted work than in the seven months prior to the storm.
  • According to a survey of 3,863 businesses, 2,561 reopened.
  • 232 were still closed one year after Charley.
  • Of Collier County’s 241 structures, 169 were damaged, 24 demolished
  • Collier County spent $86 million on storm recovery in the year after Charley.
  • The county removed 1.95 million cubic yards of debris. That’s 454,000 tons or 53,784 truckloads.
  • 45,723 signs were replaced.

MORE: Hurricane Charley Recovery – By The Numbers from FEMA

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