Storm lashes Central Florida

At least 3 dead, dozens injured after Charley changes course in gulf

Upgraded to Category 4 force

August 14, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch, Reginald Fields and Julie Bell | Arthur Hirsch, Reginald Fields and Julie Bell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - Hurricane Charley charged across the southern Gulf Coast and into Central Florida yesterday with sustained winds of 145 mph, killing at least three people, injuring dozens, leaving hundreds of thousands in the dark and driving a sea water surge into low-lying neighborhoods.

The storm hit the west coast barrier islands between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda shortly before 4 p.m. as a Category 4 hurricane, making it the most powerful storm to strike Florida since Andrew lashed the Miami area in 1992, killing 43 people and causing more than $31 billion in damage.

While cautioning yesterday afternoon that it was much too early to know the cost of the destruction in Charley's wake, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush estimated $15 billion. His brother, President George Bush, declared the state a disaster area late in the afternoon.

The three deaths related to the storm were a crash on Interstate 75 in Sarasota County that killed one person; a wind gust that caused a truck to collide with a car in Orange County, killing a young girl; and a man who had stepped outside his house to smoke a cigarette and was crushed by a falling banyan tree in Fort Myers, authorities said.

Tornadoes spun off from the remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie have killed three people and injured more than two dozen others in North Carolina.

By 11 p.m. Charley was headed toward Jacksonville with winds about 90 mph. The scope of the damage was difficult to measure with the storm sweeping northeast at 20 mph.

"We can't get anyone on the roads to check" on damage and answer calls, Sgt. Kelly Eggers of the De Soto County Sheriff's Department, said during the height of the storm shortly after 6 p.m. "It's seriously bad."

Through her window at headquarters, just north of where the storm first hit the mainland, she could see a "humongous tree" down on a house.

She had just heard a report that a group of evacuees had to be moved to a school after a building being used as a shelter "fell apart. ... The roof started blowing off, and the structure started to crumble."

`Nightmare' surges

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said the expected storm surges of 10 to 15 feet fulfilled "the nightmare scenario that we've been talking about for years." Officials estimated that the storm dropped 4 to 8 inches of rain.

About a third of Florida's 17 million people were in Charley's path; close to a million left their homes for shelter in schools and the homes of friends and relatives.

About 1,250 National Guard members were on duty by about 11 p.m., following the path of the storm and handing out ice, water and food to people, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. A total of 5,000 had been approved for callup by Gov. Bush.

Charley made landfall at Captiva Island at 3:45 p.m., hitting the mainland about 30 minutes later.

By then, a coast-to-coast swath of Florida had battened down. Hotels, campgrounds, airports and restaurants were shuttered. In Tampa, few gas stations were still open, and some stations had closed not for weather but lack of fuel.

Out of gas

"No more gas" said a hand-lettered sign at a Tampa Sunoco.

Interstate 4, the main highway east out of Tampa, was jammed along the 60-mile stretch to Orlando.

Officials there were taking no chances either, as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando had closed early in the day. Disney's Animal Kingdom never opened at all.

On the Atlantic Coast east of Orlando, traffic was bumper to bumper about noon on roads leading out of the John F. Kennedy Space Center as 13,000 employees were sent home early. Ten Navy ships from Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville were sent out to sea.

Between 500,000 and 700,000 homes and businesses lost power during the storm, and two traffic deaths were reported. Early yesterday morning, after the storm cut through the Caribbean, Charley was blamed for three deaths in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

As the hurricane crossed the Gulf in midafternoon, forecasters upgraded it from a Category 2 to 4 - the second-most-dangerous strength, with winds of 131 to 155 mph. Officials in Charlotte County were reported criticizing national forecasters for misstating both the strength and direction of the fast-moving storm.

Tampa residents braced for the worst of it, and dodged the bullet.

Chris and Jennifer Hamm of Tampa threw a hurricane party at their home for friends.

"Everyone is pretty scared, to tell you the truth," Jennifer Hamm said. "But we decided to make the best of it. You stock up on beer and you make a lot of ice and you don't leave the house."

John Girvin and his girlfriend, Naomi Buck, and a friend visiting from Pittsburgh were going to wait out the storm at his place in Naples, about seven miles inland and 20 miles south of where Charley made landfall.

"We've got a lot of wine, a lot of vodka, a lot of steak," said Girvin. He seemed to be taking things in stride, figuring the house at 14-foot elevation would probably be safe from the storm surge.

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