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Capricious Charley leaves swath of ruin

The hurricane strengthened to a Category 4, changed track and made landfall 70 miles south of where expected

Hurricane Charley carved a trail of destruction across Florida, killing at least 19 and leaving tens of thousands homeless, many around scenic Charlotte Harbor, which took the brunt of the storm’s 145-mph winds.

“This was a bad one,” says Dewey Ives, lead surveyor for BoatU.S.’s Catastrophe Response Team, though not as bad as Hurricane Andrew. That storm caused an estimated $300 million in marine damage in 1992. “From a marine standpoint, it’s still probably in the top 10,” he says.

At Punta Gorda on the southwest coast — ground zero — the storm’s ranking was academic. Charley’s Category 4 winds were “terrifying,” says Don Bentley, a Punta Gorda yacht captain who rode out the hurricane at home, hunkered down under an overturned couch.

“There were tiles sailing through the windows, and the Sheetrock in the garage gave way,” he says. A second townhouse he owns has no roof now, and on one two-mile stretch of road near his home, every utility pole is down. “It was just devastating.”

Bentley, though, was unscathed, as was his 31-foot sailboat. The boat was secured with double lines and anchors behind a house and between finger piers. Bentley figures he was just lucky that the Hunter’s bow and stern faced into Charley’s winds as it blew through first from the west then from the east, and that the house served as a buffer.

Others weren’t so lucky. In this Punta Gorda Isles neighborhood, “There’s a lot of boat damage,” Bentley says. “Boats upside down in back yards. Boats piled up on top of each other in the canals. Boats knocked off lifts behind apartments and homes.”

BoatU.S.’s Ives says Punta Gorda looks like a war zone. “Downtown is literally blown apart,” he says. Port Charlotte, Sanibel, Captiva, North Captiva, Useppa Island and north Pine Island all suffered devastating wind damage.

A 400-yard-wide channel that didn’t exist before Charley now runs through North Captiva between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound. Some popular local destinations like Safety Harbor, the Mango Café and Barnacle Phil’s are on the new island. Seventy percent of the homes on exclusive Useppa and 60 percent of the homes on North Captiva suffered “major damage,” according to news reports. Charley blew down a boat barn at the Pineland Marina on Bokeelia just north of Pine Island, crushing probably 150 boats in a tangle of twisted metal, Ives says. A barn at nearby Four Winds Marina also was torn up, damaging at least 50 boats inside it.

“They’re not allowing anybody onto Sanibel, Captiva or Fort Myers Beach [in Charley’s aftermath],” says Ken Stead, executive director of the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association, shortly after the storm. “The islands are closed. There are a lot of marinas on Fort Myers Beach. People haven’t been able to get back out there and see what they’ve got left.”

Stead says he had heard of no boat-related deaths.

Stead says the hotel complex at popular South Seas Plantation on Captiva was “extremely damaged.” Most of the boats, however, had been moved out of the marina before Charley arrived.

Gary Graham, a boat captain who lives in Matlacha, a village of 800 on Pine Island, evacuated before the storm. When he returned home, his old wood-frame “Florida Cracker” house on the island’s lee side was in good shape, but his 17-foot Shamrock center console was trashed. It had been at the Pineland Marina for repowering. “Unfortunately, it’s got a tree on top of it right now,” Graham says.

Like most residents of the southwest coast, Graham was surprised that the predicted 17-foot storm surge never materialized. If it had, all of Pine Island would have been under water. As it was, Graham believes his property on the sound took just 3 or 4 feet of surge. “The storm was moving too fast,” he says, at 17 to 18 knots, and the killer winds were confined to a compact radius from the eye.

Ives estimates the surge at Burnt Store Marina — close to ground zero — at 6 to 8 feet. Outside the narrow zone of devastation, surge was a modest 3 to 4 feet. At Burnt Store, Punta Gorda’s premier marina, at least 10 sailboats were without masts.

“There’s a forest of flopping roller-furling genoas and a lot of boat rash [scrapes],” Ives says. But the marina survived intact.

Ives expected to find much of the boat damage at private docks on canals behind homes in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral and other communities on Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. He also expected to see a lot of trailer boat damage inland where Charley cut across Florida from Charlotte Harbor over Orlando to Daytona Beach, where it still was packing hurricane-strength 85-mph winds.

Charley had been expected to churn through heavily populated metropolitan Tampa-St. Petersburg as a Category 2 or 3, raising fears of another Andrew. However, the storm jogged east 70 miles south of Tampa — about four hours before landfall — and quickly strengthened from a 110-mph Category 2 storm to a 140-mph Category 4.

“All along they were saying it was headed for Tampa Bay,” says Barb Hansen, co-owner of Southwest Florida Yachts, a charter firm with boats at Burnt Store and Marinatown in nearby North Fort Myers. “Then at 1 that afternoon, they tell us, ‘We have a serious situation here. This thing has turned and is heading for Sanibel, and you’ve got to do something now.’ ”

For many, it was too late to evacuate before the 3:45 p.m. landfall. Meteorologists blamed the 11th hour course change to the easterly moving jet stream, pushed way south by a low that had dipped lower than normal for this time of year. At 11 a.m. Aug. 15, the national hurricane center shifted Charley’s projected landfall south from Tampa Bay to Bradenton. By 1 p.m. the track had changed again, with landfall now at Charlotte Harbor. The strength of the storm also jumped to Category 3, as it fed on warm Gulf water. By 2 p.m., Charley had accelerated into an extremely dangerous Category 4.

“We were expecting a Category 2 storm,” Bentley says. “That’s the only reason we stayed. Otherwise we would have been out of here.”

Remarkably, Hansen says her charter fleet fared well, in both Marinaland and Burnt Store, with just one boat of 20 dismasted. The rest of the damage was cosmetic. “We didn’t get the storm surge they predicted, which saved us,” she says. “Otherwise we would have been history. Mostly we’re seeing wind damage.”

In Tampa, Chuck Rogers at the Tampa Bayside Marina, a 500-slip high-and-dry, reported “zero damage” and winds to just 25 or 30 mph 70 miles north of ground zero. And about 50 miles south of Punta Gorda in Naples, Jim Kalvin, a dockbuilder, reported 90- to 100-mph gusts and minimal storm surge. At City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin, 30 miles south of Punta Gorda, “It doesn’t look like they even had a squall,” Ives says. Gulf-side on Sanibel and Captiva, expensive oceanfront homes were ripped apart by the winds and flooded by a 6- to 8-foot Gulf surge.

Authorities have estimated damage across Florida from the storm at $15 billion, less than half the damage from Andrew. Ives predicted a serious crunch in finding boatyards to handle the massive volume of boat repairs due to a shortage of yards in southwest Florida. “That’s a real issue from Tampa Bay to Naples,” he says.

Stead says yards up the Caloosahatchee River — Owl Creek and Fort Myers Yacht and Ship — probably would reopen quickly for repairs.

Southwest Florida hasn’t seen a hurricane like Charley since Donna in 1960. In fact, the southwest coast has been relatively free of hurricanes over the last decade. “I think there were a lot of people who thought we were on the wrong side of Florida for hurricanes,” Bentley says. A transplant from Atlanta, he says this was his first hurricane. He’ll make sure he doesn’t get caught in another one.

“You don’t want to have more than one of these in a lifetime,” he says.