Hurricane Charley - Punta Gorda Florida
From "Hurricane Journey - Life In The Danger Zone" By Jim Edds
Hurricane Journey - Jim Edds & Jeff Gammons

 

 

        

At the April 9, 2004 Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Florida, Dr. William Grey asked the audience a question: how many times in the last 38 years has Florida been struck by a major hurricane? The answer was only once. "I don't think the average Floridian knows how lucky they have been and what's coming . . . there's trouble on the way," he said. 

Unfortunately, Dr. Grey's prediction was correct. Hurricane Season 2004 was the start of an incredible period for hurricane strikes in the US, particularly in Florida. In just six weeks, four hurricanes would strike Florida, and three of them would be major hurricanes. Fort Pierce would be hit by Hurricane Frances, and then major Hurricane Jeanne just three short weeks later. Pensacola would be impacted by two major hurricanes - Ivan & Dennis - both in the space of 10 months. 

Hurricane Charley was one of those rare, all-daytime hurricanes, the likes of which the US has not seen in a long time. Andrew, Hugo, and Camille were nighttime events, so those are not well documented on film. Charley changed course in the final hours of Friday the 13th, strengthened into a 150-mph, high-end category four storm, and caused catastrophic damage in the Punta Gorda, Charlotte County area.  

Charley began as a tropical wave emerging from the African coast on August 4, 2004. Over the next five days it slowly became better organized, and on August 9th a tropical depression formed 115 miles south-southeast of Barbados. The tropical depression moved rapidly to the west-northwest at nearly 25 mph, embedded in a deep-layer high pressure area. With low wind shear and good outflow, the depression was upgraded to Tropical Storm Charley on August 10th. At that time, it was in the southeast Caribbean. The following day, Charley became a hurricane south of Jamaica and slowed down to 15 mph while rounding the western periphery of a mid-tropospheric ridge. Missing Jamaica, Charley continued to strengthen, and moved north-northwest toward the western tip of Cuba, crossing just east of the Isles of Pines.  

Surface observations and radar from Cuba indicated that Charley was likely a category three hurricane at landfall, and that the eye shrank in size overnight on August 12-13. Charley passed over the Dry Tortugas around 7 am on August 13th as a strong category two hurricane with winds near 110 mph. Steering at that point was controlled by a strong, mid-tropospheric trough digging along the east coast of the US into the Gulf of Mexico. Charley turned north-northwest in the direction of the flow and increased forward speed to near 21 mph, targeting a large swath of the West Coast of Florida with Tampa the likely landfall point. 

By then I had filmed plenty of category ones, twos, and threes, and gotten rather cocky, thinking I could take on anything Mother Nature threw at me. One thing I've learned in this business is no matter how old you are - you haven't seen it all and never will.  

On that trip I teamed up with local Florida Keys friend Mark Rackley. Mark and I had been in plenty of dicey situations before, like filming sharks in the Keys and alligators underwater - yeah, you read that right - in the Everglades. Mark was a seasoned cameraman - the most gifted breath-hold underwater cameraman I'd ever seen - and he was fearless. He was the lead cameraman for the "Wildboyz" series on MTV. 

At 11 am the new update came out from the NHC [insert 11am forecast track from NHC]  - Charley was going to hit just south  of Tampa with 110-mph sustained winds. Mark and I had gone up to Tampa the day before to preposition for the storm. We were using a new piece of hardware from Sprint - a laptop data card tied into the internet via the cellular network. With the card, we could get updates on the road and not have to waste time looking for a wifi hotspot. It was a nice piece of new technology for cameramen on the go.  

Mark and I were at a big chain grocery store parking lot, and we observed something odd. People were out and about buying groceries like it was just another day. I didn't see any sense of urgency on people's faces, and wondered why they weren't working to secure their homes. In a few hours, a 110-mph hurricane was supposed to hit the area. The last time Tampa was hit by a hurricane was 1921, and even that was just a category one. There was no reminder of what could happen - or maybe Tampa folks thought this one was going to miss them like "all the others." 

At around 1:45 pm I was watching Charley's very small diameter eye on the Doppler radar loop on my laptop in my vehicle. [insert Doppler radar animation –use PNG files for anti flicker or raw frames] At that point I was going solely by radar, since it was nearly real time. It dawned on me that Charley's approach could change just a little and that would greatly change the landfall on the west Florida coastline. Still, I felt confident in the official forecast track. 

As I was watching the radar loop, I had to do a double take. Lo and behold, Charley was making a run for the coast already and it looked like Fort Myers was going to be the target, not Tampa. I radioed Mark, who was following behind me, that we needed to turn around and head south on Hwy. 41 (Tamiami Trail), because Charley was coming in soon.   

Twenty minutes later an excited Jeff Gammons, who was about 15 minutes behind us, called with ominous news. Jeff also had a Sprint data card and was watching Charley turn toward the coast on radar. Then his weather radio toned out with a special bulletin - Charley was now a category four storm. An Air Force Hurricane Hunter recon aircraft mission had just measured winds adjusted for the surface at 145 mph. Gulp. Then he said, "oh by the way - today is Friday the 13th." I'm not a superstitious person, but 145 mph with higher gusts was scary enough and then adding Friday the 13th? I didn't like the thought of that one bit. Going from a category two storm to a category four storm is not a little worse - it's a lot worse! 

At the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center, Director Wayne Sallade received a call from NHC director Max Mayfield advising him of the new recon data and Hurricane Charley's peak winds. Wayne and 60 other staff and law enforcement personnel would have to leave their steel building, because it was only rated for 110 mph.  

Mark and I were headed south on highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, hitting all the lights green. What luck, I thought. Hardly anybody was on the road. I chose that route over the parallel Interstate 65, because if Charley came in before we reached Fort Myers I wanted to be able to find cover fast. The last thing I wanted to do was intercept Charley on the open Interstate.  

My heart was really racing as we headed south. We had to get to an unknown location and find a secure shooting spot – all before Charley hit. I had to throw my intercept plan out the window and start all over, and that worried me. First, I had to pick the right landfall spot, and with a fast-moving, wobbling, small-core hurricane that was going to be very difficult. I needed a little help. 

There's nothing like another set of eyes to read the radar when you're busy on the road. I called a good buddy of mine in Queens, NY- Scott McPartland - and advised him of the situation. Scott and I had been in a few hurricanes together and even made a road trip to Hurricane Alley. He was a good radar man with a keen eye, and I trusted him. I asked if he could take a good look at Charley on radar and pick a target, because Mark and I had our hands full with driving. I told him I wanted the worst part of the hurricane, which was the right side eyewall, not the eye itself. About 15 minutes later, Scott called back and said to drive across the Charlotte Harbor Bridge into Punta Gorda and stop right there. One thing you have to remember about hurricanes - they don't move in a straight line. They wobble. With an eye five miles across with the strongest winds six miles out, you had to be basically on a pinpoint or you missed the show entirely. We were going to have to "thread the needle" on this one. 

I radioed back to Mark to tell him the plan and the danger involved. He didn't really know what he was getting into, and neither did I. There was a good chance we were going to get into some real trouble. I told him we had to find a safe place or we were not driving out of this one. Mark nonchalantly replied, "I'm with you, bro." Danger was his middle name. This was a man who once had a poisonous cottonmouth snake attach to the lens on his camera. He didn't flinch. 

We rolled into Punta Gorda at 2:ll pm. It was a small town of only 16,000 people, and we immediately went looking for a safe place to stash the cars. The skies were ominous and the wind was beginning to pick up. Punta Gorda was a ghost town – nobody anywhere, including the police. It was an amazing site. Wayne Sallade, the County Emergency Manager, [talk to Wayne one more time about this part] had prepared Punta Gorda ahead of Charley. Everybody either left the town or was hunkered down and ready.  

We turned right and headed southwest into the Punta Gorda Isles area. It was all just houses, and nothing really secure for a 145-mph hurricane. It just wasn't safe in that area. I was beginning to get worried, and we didn't have much time left. 

We came back out and turned south on 41. At a shopping center parking lot, we saw Jeff Gammons and some others in their vehicles looking over data. Good idea, I thought, to park and get one last fix on Charley's landfall.  

It was going to be a close one. Drive too far south and you missed the show. Where was Charley going? It could be anywhere from Fort Myers to Port Charlotte. The problem was that the yellow rain bands from Charley had covered up the coastline detail on the radar display. I tried my best to get a course, but Charley looked like it was heading in one direction and then a few images later looked like it was headed in another. Finally I said, "Ok, it looks like Cape Coral just north of Fort Myers. It's going to Cape Coral. We need to move!" 

But something inside told me to wait for a couple more frames to come in. That was about eight minutes, since the Doppler radar was in rapid scan mode. After they came in, Charley moved more northerly and closer to us. I changed my mind and said to Mark, "We don't need to move - we're in the right spot." I went over to Jeff Gammons, who was flipping between the radar image and a travel map due to the rain band problem. Jeff was super focused, peering intently at his laptop screen. As a South Florida Native, this was his backyard and he knew the area well. He came to the same conclusion - we were at ground zero. To avoid everyone shooting the same thing, Jeff suggested that everybody spread out and find their own shooting location. We all said our good-byes and bolted to find the best spot first! 

Then came the hard part. I just didn't see anything safe anywhere in Punta Gorda. It reminded me of that game we played when we were kids called "musical chairs" - everybody is walking around a row of limited chairs and when the music stops you to run to the closest one. You didn't want to be left standing with Charley coming to town.  

Punta Gorda was a quiet little town off the beaten path of I-65. I can't remember the last time that area saw a hurricane. Most of the structures were built to old building codes, and might not be prepared for a category four storm. At 145 mph, Charley was a high end category four hurricane. How many buildings could withstand that kind of wind without damage? Those thoughts were running through my head as Mark and I drove all over the place yet again, looking for safety.  

We finally found a condo area near the water, next to the Peace River Bridge. It had a three-sided concrete parking enclosure. It wasn't the best, but it would have to do. Mark and I geared up at 3:12 pm and went down to the Peace River to film under the southbound lane of the bridge with our surge cams. With a northeast wind, the Peace River was moving toward the ocean. That meant there wasn't going to be any massive storm surge at that location. We jumped back in our vehicles and went scouting a new place to shoot. Something told me the condo parking garage just wasn't a safe place. 

Finally, Mark said we needed to start filming because the wind was really picking up. I said I knew, but I wanted to be able to drive out of there when Charley was all over. A few minutes later, at 3:49 pm, we parked on the downwind side of the Bank of America on the corner of Olympia and Nesbit. It was a sturdy, three-story building that blocked the wind - for the moment. I told Mark we would have to come back during the calm eye and move the cars, because the wind was going to come out of the opposite direction and they'd be completely exposed during the second half of the storm.  

In the light rain and gusty winds Mark and I suited up, grabbed what gear we needed, and scouted the area on foot. I had my fluid-head tripod cam over my right shoulder and my heavy surge cam in my left hand. Mark was ready for total immersion with his waterproof gator-cam and well-worn wetsuit. Over on the intersection of Nesbit & Marion, and saw two guys with large green trash bags for rain jackets standing outside and leaning into the wind. They seemed to be having a good time, and were just outside a local pub called the Celtic Ray. They were the first two people I'd seen in Punta Gorda. I thought they were crazy. 

Jeff and his crew chose to ride out the storm at the Government Center, where there was a tunnel-like entranceway to stash their vehicles. It was a great location with well built protection all around, except the east side was exposed to the wind - and guess which direction the wind was coming from? That's right. The northeast. So Jeff and crew would have to hold on until the winds swung around out of the other direction. There was no place completely safe in Punta Gorda from the approaching calamity. Even the Punta Gorda Emergency Operations Center was going to suffer the wrath of Hurricane Charley. 

After walking around for another 30 minutes, all that gear just got too heavy. I needed to lighten my load, so Mark and I went back to our vehicles and I got rid of the surge cam. It weighed a lot, and I probably wouldn't need it. I also decided not to take my goggles - something I would end up regretting. 

The wind was blowing at nearly 40-50 mph with higher gusts, and the rain was heavy. Mark was in his wetsuit, so getting wet was no big deal to him. I took some footage of him down low, filming the street flooding. You could barely make him out, the rain was so heavy. As cameramen, you sometimes get tunnel vision looking into the viewfinder because you're so focused on the shot. As time went on, we moved further apart. We were working each area over but still staying within sight of each other. We had made an earlier pact to stay together, since Charley was such a dangerous storm.  

As the rain and wind increased yet again, lo and behold, we became separated and I didn't see Mark anywhere. I went looking for him, and called out his name. He wasn't behind the bank, in front of the bank, or anywhere that I could see. A 145-mph hurricane was bearing down on me and I was walking around on foot, looking for Mark. Mark was probably doing the same in his effort to find me. Finally I realized I was totally on my own, and it was survival time. I walked down Olympia Street, turned left on Hwy 41, and found the front of an eye doctor's office - out of the wind - with a little overhang above. That would have to do. 

I extended the tripod legs, locked the video cam down, and began rolling tape at 4:05 pm. Hurricane Charley was moving inland fast - at nearly 20 mph. It was going to be a rare in-and-out, all-daytime, strong category four hurricane - not a nighttime hurricane like Andrew, Hugo, or Camille. The wind was blowing from left to right along hwy 41. It was a perfect spot - so I thought. The force of the wind - which had reached 65 mph and above, was starting to affect the landscape. I saw palm trees in the distance with their branches bent back, swaying in response to the surging wind. Streets signs were rocking back and forth, and the wind started to howl and increase quickly. A few minutes later, at 4:22 pm, a piece of metal awning just above me came down and was spinning around. It made that awful, metal-on-concrete grinding noise - much like a fingernail down a chalkboard. Then a piece of metal blew down the street. The wind surged to 70-80 mph, and a large piece of sheet metal came flying down from the sky, over my head, and crashed into the Prudential building directly across the street. Wow, this was way too close, I thought. I didn't like that spot one bit. That piece of metal would have seriously injured me, for sure. 

The wind backed off a bit. Another piece of metal awning landed in front of me, spinning around and around, grinding against the concrete. Then it defied gravity and lifted straight up nearly three feet in the air for half a second, then flew down the street. I commented on camera "This town is coming apart" and the wind started shredding the big Prudential sign across the street.  

The wind and rain surged up again, and I took out a bunched-up paper towel in a zip lock bag from my jacket to wipe the camera lens. When the cam came back into proper focus and exposure, the sky was filled with debris. It was as if someone was grinding stuff up and tossing it into the air a quarter of a mile upwind. I was just feet away from the wind tunnel of deadly flying debris. I retreated back a few feet into the corner of the entrance, put the tripod down to the lowest level, and got on my knees behind it. It was getting way too scary and if the wind shifted, I would be completely exposed if I didn't get out.  

With a gust over 100 mph a huge piece of roof blew down the street just feet from me and the rest of the Prudential sign across the street tore loose from its huge metal frame. It soon disappeared into the debris-filled sky. I cleaned the lens again, panned the camera left, and recorded the entire roof of a building peeling back and disintegrating when it hit the ground. A few minutes later a huge surge in wind, probably to 125 mph, filled the sky with rain and more debris. I had to clean the rain off my lens every 20 seconds. The wind created a vortex in my hiding spot, spinning dirt up into my eyes from the soil and plants next to me. That was not good. The town was blowing apart and I couldn't see. I wished I had my goggles! 

I wondered if Mark was ok. I was supposed to look after him on the trip. I didn't see how he could survive it. I remember thinking that filming hurricanes wasn't very much fun, and I yearned to have that boring day job back! With the wind shift coming up soon, I felt sure I was a goner. I recall thinking "God, if you get me out of here alive I'll never film another hurricane again." I turned the camera off, and started planning my escape.  

I put the camera in the backpack, secured the tripod, and did something rather odd. I prayed for the eye of Hurricane Charley. I needed the calm eye to run back to the bank and move the vehicle. I was hanging on, dirt in my eyes, making myself as small of a target as I could in that little corner at the eye doctor's office. I could have really used a break right about then. Ten minutes later, around 4:45 pm, an incredible gust of wind and a strong pressure sensation hit me in the chest. It got really bright, too, as if I had entered Heaven. Wow, Hurricane Charley full on - here I take my last breath. The dreaded eyewall was there. God, could it get any worse? After 10 long seconds, the winds nearly stopped completely. It took me a few more seconds to realize what had happened, and then I shot out of there like my pants were on fire - back to the bank and our vehicles. 

I jumped over downed power lines and all kinds of debris. It was a real mess. I got back to my vehicle, and noticed the back window was gone. Damn, what happened? I put the gear down and bent over the trunk, taking it all in. Just then, Mark exited the passenger's side of his SUV and brought his camera up toward me. I said to him, "Mark, what happened?" glancing at my busted rear window. Just then a gust of wind blew me 20 feet backward and I landed face down on the pavement. I got back up and went back to the car. Mark was screaming at me to get out of the wind. He could see debris blowing by me in that gust. I was too fixated on my car with the missing windowMark was yelling "get out of here," and I said "where, where?" He said to follow him and then took off running. I didn't even notice which direction he went. I was too worried about my car. I wanted to drive back home. Mark's vehicle was upwind from mine and his was untouched – how did that happen?

 

I quickly realized I needed to get my car to the other side of the bank. I jumped in and sat down on a zillion tiny shards of glass and started the car. Whew, it still ran. I jumped the curb and drove through the outside teller the wrong way to the other side of the bank. Just in time, too, because a huge curtain of wind and rain - the backside eyewall in earnest - was covering the landscape. I got out of my car and hugged the wall of the bank. It seemed safer than being in the car.  

By then I was really shaken up. The howling wind and the metal objects flying through the air and making that awful crashing sound really had me on edge. It was 4:56 pm. You'd hear a loud bang and you'd hope it wasn't something coming at you. I turned the camera on myself and did an interview describing what it was like outside on the ground during Charley. It helped calm me down, as I was out of my normal shooting groove and just trying to survive.  

I finally noticed an SUV parked a short distance behind mine. I was surprised anybody else was there and wondered if they were as scared as I was. When the wind came down a bit I ran over to the driver's side and asked them who they were. The first thing they said was, "Are you ok?" I'm sure they saw my busted-up vehicle and thought I might have been injured. I told them I was fine; a bit rattled but not hurt. They were a Fox News crew and the passenger was saying when he got back home his wife was "gonna kick his butt" for driving into such a nasty storm. 

The wind started to calm down more as Charley quickly moved inland. Wow, I had never experienced such a fast-moving hurricane. I got in my car and called Abbey, my video contact at WFOR CBS News in Miami. I told her what I'd just gone through and she said to hold on, and then to say that all over again, and they put me live on the air. It was amazing the cell towers were still running, and I was able to get one of the first live ground reports out from Punta Gorda. 

I called Jeff on the two-meter handheld ham radio. Ham radio was great for times like that because you weren't dependent on electricity and cell phone towers. He said they made it through in good shape, [ jeff's description of what happened at the Government Center] and three other guys took shelter nearby at the Government Center. They were all unhurt. Jeff drove over to where I was and we swapped survival stories. Then I followed Jeff over to the Celtic Ray where everybody that survived Charley was meeting to get a cold beer on tap. I stepped in through a busted-out front window and that's where I found Mark Rackley - safe and sound. Whew!   

A short time later, the WFOR news truck and reporter Jason Wheeler found me. They were in the Port Charlotte area and came looking for me. We did an interview right there in the street. The beer calmed me down and everyone swapped wide-eyed survival stories of Charley. We were all just happy to be alive. It was an amazing sight.  

I took some aftermath video before everyone came back into town. It was getting dark, so I needed to get back home to Big Pine Key. On the way out I could see a long line of cars going back into Punta Gorda. Traffic was slowed due to twisted metal street light poles and other debris lying in the road. I called Scott in Queens again. Scott said he thought he'd killed us all for sure. He hadn't heard from me for two hours. I told him everyone was fine, but my car was pretty beat up. I saw some more dark clouds up ahead, and since my glass sunroof was also busted out I wanted to know how long it was going to rain (inside my car). He said not to worry as it didn't look too bad on radar. That was nice to know, as I'd had enough rain for one day. 

I headed south on I-65 and met up with another WFOR satellite truck near Fort Lauderdale. They uploaded my video before I pushed on south toward Big Pine Key. At 3:30 am I got back home, climbed into bed, and promptly fell into a deep and well-deserved sleep.

For the complete story including video and photos check out the e-book
Hurricane Journey - Life in the Danger Zone

Hurricane Journey - Jim Edds & Jeff Gammons
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