- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — A stronger-than-expected Hurricane Charley roared ashore yesterday as a dangerous Category 4 storm, slamming the heavily populated Gulf Coast with devastating storm surges and 145-mph wind that snapped trees in half, ripped roofs off buildings and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

The hurricane struck west-central Florida at Charlotte Harbor with a wicked combination of water and wind. A surge of seawater reached up to 15 feet, the National Hurricane Center said. Winds blew off the roof of a hurricane shelter where 1,200 people had gathered and tore apart small planes at the Charlotte County Airport.

Two traffic deaths were reported in Florida. Earlier, Charley had been blamed for three deaths in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

Gov. Jeb Bush said damage could exceed $15 billion but cautioned it was a preliminary estimate as the storm headed across the center of Florida toward the Orlando area. President Bush declared the storm-battered region a federal disaster area.

“Our prayers are with you and your families tonight,” the president said in Seattle.

“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. when it passed over the barrier islands between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, about 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 5 p.m., Charley was centered about 30 miles west-northwest of Fort Myers and 115 miles south-southwest of Orlando. Even though the core of the storm had moved inland, it still packed sustained wind of 140 mph with higher gusts, but was expected to weaken. Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended outward 25 miles from the eye.

Charley was moving toward the north-northeast at 22 mph and it could speed up, the National Hurricane Center said. That path would take it through an area with 6.5 million of Florida’s 17 million residents. Four to 8 inches of rain was possible.

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 Cape Lookout, N.C.

The hurricane initially was expected to strike as a Category 2 storm, but was upgraded as it approached the coast. Mr. 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.”

However, hurricane center meteorologist Hugh Cobb said there had been warnings about the uncertainty of the storm’s path, explaining that its direction was influenced by a weather condition called a trough.

“It is very difficult to forecast a turn when you’re dealing with a trough,” Mr. Cobb said. “All along they warned people that the storm could hit Fort Myers on northward.”

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. Charlotte County sheriff’s Capt. Mike Gandy said a few sheriff’s office employees took shelter in an electrical room after the roof of the administration building blew off. The Cape Coral Hospital in Fort Myers lost much of its roof, Mayor Jim Humphrey told CNN.

“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 Mrs. 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,” she said before the phone line went dead.

About 335,000 people are without power in southwest Florida, said Kathy Scott, spokeswoman with Florida Power & Light. That number was expected to grow as Charley cuts through the state.

The evacuation rivaled the largest in state history, and Mr. Bush urged people in the storm’s projected path to keep off highways and roads.

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

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 yesterday.

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-member 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 today, and trains coming from Los Angeles will stop in New Orleans instead of continuing on to Orlando.

Earlier yesterday, the eye of the 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. The Keys will be open to visitors today, officials said.

Charley was 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 more than 155 mph. Mitch killed about 10,000 people in Central America.

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