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Friday, August 13, 2004

Category 4 Charley Slams Florida

(AP Photo)
Category 4 Charley Slams Fla. Mainland
Category 4 Charley Slams Fla. Mainland at Charlotte Harbor; Gov. Bush Says Damage May Top $15B

The Associated Press

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. Aug. 13, 2004 Ă‚? A stronger-than-expected Hurricane Charley roared ashore Friday as a dangerous Category 4 storm, pounding the heavily populated Gulf Coast with 145 mph wind and towering surges of water expected to swallow up miles of shoreline.

Airports and theme parks hurriedly closed and storm shelters quickly filled up as nearly 2 million people were told to flee ahead of the strongest storm to hit Florida in a decade. Gov. Jeb Bush estimated that damage could exceed $15 billion.

"This is the nightmare scenario that we've been talking about for years," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, referring to storm surges up to 20 feet. "You've got roofs blowing off. It's going to be bad. Real bad."

Charley's eye reached land at 3:45 p.m. EDT when it passed over the barrier islands between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, some 70 miles southeast of the Tampa Bay area. It struck the mainland 30 minutes later.

"We are ground zero for Hurricane Charley," said Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County.

By 4 p.m., it was centered about 20 miles west-northwest of Fort Myers, according to the National Hurricane Center. Wind of at least 74 mph extended outward 30 miles from the eye. The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for parts of the region.

Charley was expected to slice north through the state, with 6.5 million of Florida's 17 million residents in the projected path. Four to 8 inches of rain was possible.

The hurricane was initially expected to strike as a Category 2 storm, but was upgraded as it approached the coast. Sallade lashed out at forecasters because authorities learned so late that Charley was a Category 4.

"This magnitude storm was never predicted," he said. "(Forecasters) told us for years they don't forecast hurricane intensity well and unfortunately, we know that now."

Residents who had not left were told to stay home or head to shelters, and even the Charlotte County emergency operation center was evacuated as a precaution. The wind snapped pine trees in half, and offshore the gulf churned like water in a washing machine.

"When the ocean decides to meet my bay, that's a lot of water. It's already in my pool," said Lucy Hunter, the hotel operator at the Pink Shell Beach Resort and Spa.

Six resort employees, including Hunter's husband, hunkered down in a room in the hotel's center. "Every now and then you hear a big whistle, but the noise isn't bad," Hunter said before the phone line went dead.

Charley had been expected to hit shore near the Tampa-St. Petersburg area but veered toward the northeast before making landfall.

That change wasn't enough to make Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Gregg Feagans relax. "As long as this thing still has a name, it's like sleeping with rattlesnakes," he said.

Earlier, as it blew through the Caribbean, Charley had been blamed for at least four deaths, three in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

The evacuation rivaled the largest in state history, and Bush urged people in the storm's projected path to keep off highways and roads. He declared a state of emergency and asked his brother, President Bush, to declare a federal state of emergency.

The storm was almost on par with Hurricane Andrew, which smashed into South Florida in 1992 with 165 mph wind, killed 43 people and caused $31 billion in damage.

Hurricane warnings were posted along Florida's west coast and along the Atlantic Coast from Cocoa Beach, just south of Cape Canaveral, all the way to South Carolina.

The storm even affected the nerve center of the war in Iraq, MacDill Air Force Base, where residents evacuated and only essential personnel remained.

On the state's Atlantic coast, 10 Navy ships from Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville were sent out to sea to avoid damage from the storm, the Navy said Friday.

About 1,000 Florida National Guard members had been activated and more were likely.

At Cape Canaveral, traffic was bumper-to-bumper at noon as Kennedy Space Center employees left work early. All but a skeleton crew of 200 of the nearly 13,000-person work force was sent home, or told to stay home, and the space shuttle hangars and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building were sealed tight.

In Orlando, theme parks Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, closed in the early afternoon and Disney's Animal Kingdom didn't open at all. The only previous time that the parks closed for a hurricane was in 1999 for Floyd. Guests remaining at hotels were to urged to stay in their rooms.

Amtrak canceled long-distance service between Miami and New York for Saturday, and trains coming from Los Angeles will stop in New Orleans instead of continuing on to Orlando.

The barrier island of Sanibel, home to 6,000 people, is known for the hundreds of types of seashells that hide just beneath the sand's surface, and the posture associated with bending over to hunt them is known as the "Sanibel Stoop." An annual shell fair is attended by thousands, and a museum is devoted to the hobby.

Earlier Friday, the heart of storm slid to the west of Key West, sparing the Florida Keys. Charley hit the lower Keys with occasionally heavy rain and gusts of 58 mph but officials reported only minor damage.

If it remained at its current strength, Charley would be the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since the Category 5 Andrew hit south of Miami in 1992. Hurricane Mitch, which stalled over Honduras in 1998, also was Category 5 with sustained wind over 155 mph. Mitch killed some 10,000 people in Central America.

Associated Press writers Mark Long in Fort Myers, Ken Thomas in Key West and Vickie Chachere in Sarasota contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center:

photo credit and caption:

The roof of a garage is blown off onto Charlotte County Sheriff's cruisers from winds of Hurricane Charley in the parking lot of the Charlotte County Airport, Friday, Aug. 13, 2004, in Punta Gorda,Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Martin)

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