On Tuesday, we marked 15 years since Hurricane Charley roared through Southwest Florida, leaving devastation, heartache and confusion in its wake.
The storm was truly a seminal event in our island’s history, influencing many events that would follow – elections, jobs, decisions on whether to continue to live here and to some extent, how we live here in houses raised a dozen feet or more off our white sand. Island life surely did shift after Charley.
And our Islanders shifted right along with it, showing their resilience and determination to move forward and recover.
Our Island learned a lot from Charley. Our public safety services, on and off the island, now have a highly coordinated plan for storm scenarios. Our town has a detailed plan. Most of all, we have a population of Islanders who saw firsthand the power of Charley’s glancing blow and learned to take hurricanes seriously.
That knowledge and experience paid off an unlucky 13 years later when Hurricane Irma came to call on September 10, 2017. Islanders paid attention to the storm track, knew not to trust any one predicted path and heeded evacuation orders.
When Irma’s track put her to the west of us and the predicted storm surge hit double digits, everyone sitting at 6-10 feet of elevation on our Island with just two bridges, sat up and paid attention. Many evacuated when those orders were issued. That was made easier when storm shelters accepted pets.
Pets were a key part of our Island’s problems after Charley. Many residents only left the island when the storm track took a sudden turn east that Friday morning. When they left, they thought they’d be back in hours and that turned into days. Those that left their pets were anxious to return to them, but storm damage and dangerous conditions on the Island led to authorities blocking access.
From the vantage point of 15 years, it’s easy to see that better information, more accurate forecasting and earlier evacuation could have prevented much of the angst that followed Charley.
Fast forward to Hurricane Irma and how it was handled. Early evacuation, abundant information on how to prepare and when to prepare helped Islanders be ready. Early evacuation orders led to many heeding them, in spite of the fact that the wobbling storm had threatened much of south Florida and led to a record evacuation in the state and a shortage of shelter space. Still it worked.
It’s at moments of crisis that the very best of human nature is on display and our human decency and kindness shine the brightest. Our Island’s response to Charley and Irma was exceptional.
Our Island saw a major outbreak of community. We’ve always been a community, of course, but not necessarily a united one. Hurricanes brought us all together, first in fear of what the storm might do to the place we all love so much, then in relief that we avoided the worst case scenario and finally in banding together to take care of each other.