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Five years later, heeding the lessons of Hurricane Charley

MANATEE — Hurricane Charley’s sudden swerve into Punta Gorda and its destructive rampage through Arcadia and central Florida five years ago changed the way officials evaluate, warn and prepare for coming storms.

On Aug. 13, 2004, the forecast track indicated a direct hit at 11 a.m. at Anna Maria Island. But Charley veered right instead and blasted Charlotte County.

“Charley continued to track right of center; probably all of us were guilty of focusing on the skinny black line,” recalls Wayne Sallade, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Charlotte County. “It’s not there anymore.”

“People focused too long on a line, rather than on the cone” of hurricane tracking maps, he says. “All Southwest Florida was within that cone.”

The storm’s intensity caught them by surprise, too. They were predicting no more than a Category 3 storm.

As it turned out, Charley was a Category 4, with a sudden intensification just before landfall and screeching 145-mph winds.

“The difference in the damage was catastrophic,” Sallade said.

Charley is blamed for 10 fatalities and $15 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

A $17 million study is focusing, in part, on rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Charley, according to Dr. Richard Pasch, senior hurricane forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Scientists representing the hurricane center, NOAA, the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation are collaborating, he said.

“We want to better understand and predict rapid intensity, it’s a well-funded project,” said Pasch. “One goal is to apply new science and technology to warning and forecast shortfalls.”

Meteorologists have already dramatically changed the way they handle storm advisories.

State-of-the-art impact

Charley also inspired construction of 25 new emergency operations centers in various counties across Florida, among them a $55 million, state-of-the-art Bradenton area facility with 100,337 square feet and all the latest high-tech equipment.

Manatee County saw what happened in Charlotte County, said Laurie Feagans, chief of emergency management for Manatee County. The roof failed on Charlotte’s emergency operations center during Charley’s onslaught.

“What happens when you don’t have a survivable government building?” she said. “We were downtown in the county administrative building, a big glass building in an evacuation zone. We do have a new building, built to withstand 200-mph winds. The emergency operations center is there, as well as the 911 system, so on a day-to-day basis, it’s good to have them in a secure building.”

Eventually, it will also house a traffic management center.

Manatee County also benefitted from state and federal money set aside to to equip “special needs shelters” with generators, including two in Manatee. Those shelters will be lighted and air-conditioned, even when power lines are downed by storms, says Feagans.

“You’ve got to take care of these people,” she noted.

Florida also boasts a new state Logistics Response Center in Orlando with a 200,000-square-foot warehouse crammed with 400 truckloads of water, 50 truckloads of meals and tarps, and first response equipment, according to David Halstead, deputy director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist joined FEMA and state officials for the grand opening of the center, the first of its kind in the nation. It is designed to stockpile commodities needed in the aftermath of any kind of disaster.

Halstead notes that when officials ask people to evacuate in areas that are threatened by a big hurricane, they don’t have to go very far to be safe.

“We’ve always felt people should evacuate tens of miles, not hundreds of miles, getting away from coastal storm surge areas,” said Halstead. “Go to a friend’s house with a concrete block home, 10 to 20 miles from the coast. You don’t need to travel to Atlanta.”

Arcadia’s slow recovery

In Arcadia, east of Manatee in DeSoto County, the road to recovery from Charley has been long and fraught with troubles. But the worst seems to be over, says Robert Heine, a long-time resident and city councilman.

“We’re still trying to recover from it,” he said. “A lot of state help and federal help didn’t come through like we thought. Insurance didn’t come through. It’s been a slow process, but we’re getting close now.”

Arcadia City Administrator Markae Rupp formed a safety committee and charged it with ensuring that first aid kits and safety vests are ready, and emergency generators fueled.

The city is also reinforcing its government buildings with storm shutters or plywood.

“I’m also on the hazard mitigation board for the county and have a seat and a computer at the new emergency operations center,” said Rupp. “I’ve been working very closely with the hazard mitigation board to make sure the city is storm-ready, if you want to call it that.”

She knows how important it is to be ready.

She spent two 72-hour stints in Brevard County government buildings as first Charley and then Hurricane Frances blew through the area.

“After that,” she said, “I learned very quickly: You need to be prepared.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com

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