Sands of Time
Part Seven: Happy Friday the 13th!
Estero Island was incredibly lucky for over 40 years when it came to tropical cyclones. After Hurricane Donna left an island-wide swath of destruction in September 1960, no hurricanes made direct landfall on these shores until Charley came to call on Friday, August 13, 2004.
Hurricane Charley was forecast to give Fort Myers Beach a mere swipe of its outer bands that day en route to a late-afternoon landfall in the Tampa area. But the storm altered course to charge towards our shores. Islanders scrambled to get out of the way or batten down in time.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning 24 hours ahead of Charley’s expected landfall, covering much of the Gulf coast of Florida including Fort Myers Beach. On Thursday, August 12th, a mandatory evacuation order was released for Estero Island and other coastal areas. Most islanders heeded.
WINK-TV Meteorologist Jim Farrell broadcast an urgent weather update between 10 and 10:30 a.m. on August 13, announcing: “This hurricane is not going to be a Tampa problem. It’s a southwest Florida problem. You will see a change in prediction of Charley’s track with the 11 a.m. official National Hurricane Center bulletin.” And so it was.
The Lee County Sheriff and Fort Myers Beach Fire Department closed the two bridges accessing the island when winds reached 50 miles per hour. After that, the 400 to 500 people who stayed had to hunker down and ride it out.
Charley proved to be fast-moving and fairly compact for a Category 4 hurricane. He blasted through Fort Myers Beach in just a few hours and saved his harshest wrath for Sanibel, Captiva, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and inland communities in DeSoto, Hardee and Polk Counties.
On our island, Charley left behind a 5-day power outage – including no running water or sewage services – a sand-choked Estero Boulevard, significant infrastructure and property damage and flooding.
Access to Estero Island was barred for health and safety reasons until Wednesday, August 18, 2004. Those who had fled in advance of the storm had to cool their heels for 5 days before they could return to assess damage or take care of pets left behind.
Those who rode out the storm on the island didn’t dare leave, as they couldn’t return. They were left to cope with sticky heat, dark nights, no access to fresh provisions and fridges full of food going bad.
Birth of a Hurricane
Charley was born as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on August 4, 2004. The storm attained Category 3 hurricane status just before landing on western Cuba in the wee hours of August 13, with sustained winds of 120 mph.
Charley whirled along parallel to Florida’s west coast and roared ashore at Category 4 strength on Captiva Island, near Cayo Costa, around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, August 13. The eye whipped over Punta Gorda an hour later.
Many buildings in Charlotte County were demolished. In Punta Gorda, 6 schools and 6 fire stations were severely damaged and 11,000 homes destroyed, half of them mobile homes. Punta Gorda still bears scars from Charley, 13 years on.
In Charley’s Grip
Many Estero Islanders were ill prepared for a rapid evacuation in the face of Charley’s sudden decision to come calling.
Jack and Bobbie Capps had elected to stay in their third-floor condo at Fairview Isles on the east side of Estero Boulevard. Said Bobbie:
I was watching from the balcony. For a while, it was really scary, seeing the bands of the storm come in, wave after wave. It really was only about 3 hours, the worst of it. I watched the surge roll in, flooding the streets.
The north end of the island suffered the heaviest damage. Times Square became a gusher that turned Estero Boulevard into a river carrying tons of sand and debris. And it washed in a baby manatee, who lay stranded in the street. Good souls rolled the manatee onto a plywood plank, hauled it to a landing and released it back into the bay.
Daylight on Saturday, August 14, 2004 revealed a devastated landscape of torn-up roofs, mangled trees, broken pavement and an Estero Boulevard clogged with several feet of sand. Power lines dangled hazardously. Standing water left dozens of streets awash.
Without power to run the pumps, the island lacked running water or sewage service. Cell phone towers for miles around had been knocked out. Over 400 people were now marooned.
The only vehicles on the streets for 5 days were utility and power trucks, and bulldozers removing sand. The National Guard came to patrol.
People had been told to leave their animals in the bathroom with enough food and water for 2 days. After 5 days, residents (especially pet owners) grew anxious to get back. Enterprising boat owners ferried people to the island.
Island resident Laurie Nienhaus recalled the devastation after she paid a man $20 to row her family to the island:
So much sand. Everywhere it wasn’t supposed to be. Downed power lines, a roof sitting next to the house it should be resting on, collapsed buildings, cars pushed through curled garage doors – never had we seen such damage in real life.
Nick Ruland, longtime owner of The Fish Monger Restaurant on San Carlos Boulevard – just off the north end of Fort Myers Beach – asked a restaurant on the east coast to send as much ice as he could carry by boat. The managers at Fish Monger and Wahoo Willie’s started delivering ice to the island in dinghies.
Beside the Fort Myers Beach public pier, Beach Pierside Grill’s co-owner, Marty York, found an unholy mess:
The [restaurant] building was 100 percent filled with water – up to the ceiling. We couldn’t even get in here for 5 days, yet we opened again 17 days after the storm.
Some really weird things happened during Charley. The bases were ripped off every one of the tables, and they were all stacked together in the bar, like poker chips. All of the [potted] palm trees migrated through the building – some of them went down the hall, around corners, and ended up in a dry storage area. We found the hostess stand down at the Dairy Queen, and it still had all the toothpicks and candy in place on top of it!
The Community Pulls Together
By Sunday, August 15, the Red Cross was onsite and the National Guard kept any looters away. Daily meetings of Town staff, the Sheriff’s department, Fire Department, Fish and Wildlife, contractors, electricians and others pushed to get Fort Myers Beach functioning. They made it top priority to reconnect electricity, sewer and water.
Lee County building officials went from house to house to assess safety for occupancy. Buildings deemed hazardous were marked with an “X” or an orange flag.
Publix sold canned goods and anything not refrigerated. With no back-up generators, the store lost a huge amount of inventory. After that, Publix equipped all stores with generators.
Power was restored to the island’s north end on Sunday night, August 15. The island leased a fleet of generators and by Monday, August 16, the sewer pumps were functioning.
As officials set to work, islanders rolled up their sleeves and reached out to help each other. Wahoo Willie’s served free food to people in Times Square. Topp’s grocery store distributed goods from its stock.
The Beach Theater had suffered no structural damage and the big, walk-in freezer units could stay cold for a long time without power. As food gradually thawed, theater staff and volunteers brought their grills over and started cooking in the shaded area of the parking lot under the theater.
What started as a neighborly gesture became an island-wide feeding and comfort station. People went up and down the streets to let the stranded know that free food was available at the Beach Theater.
Residents who had food to offer brought it, more people dragged out their grills, and the makeshift chow line ended up feeding 500 people a day, including Red Cross volunteers and the National Guard.
As recovery got underway, piles of debris and cleared foliage lined the sides of Estero Boulevard, stacked several feet high. Clearing the storm debris and garbage took months.
Getting the Word Out
The Island Sand Paper came through with a special issue on Wednesday, August 18, 2004. Most of the weekly newspaper’s staff had remained on the island; Production Manager Mark List had left, but returned on Sunday, August 15 to put together the issue, titled Hurricane Charley! Fire & Water.
The front page of the newspaper announced, in red block letters, that those with proof of island residency would be allowed back onto the island at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, August 19; all others would be permitted entry on Friday, August 21.
The paper included a full page of instructions on what to expect, and how to prepare, when re-entering Fort Myers Beach. It listed 84 structures designated “Enter at your own risk” due to sewage, water, electrical and/or structural concerns – including the Lani Kai, Gulf Motel, Shamrock Restaurant and numerous residences.
Bobbie Capps was grateful. “The first news we got was from the Sand Paper. Thank goodness they got that paper out to give us some information!”
Estero Islanders who have been around since 2004 divide the island’s timeline into Before Charley and After Charley. The storm was a rude wake-up call for the majority who had never experienced a hurricane. It was physically devastating and psychologically traumatic.
Hurricane Charley destroyed countless trees – including tall, older specimens of coconut palm – and virtually all the sea turtle nests on the island. It mangled dozens of structures beyond repair, some of which remained in precarious condition for years before being demolished. Hundreds of buildings sustained damage.
Three motels that once stood at the north end of Fort Myers Beach were razed, leaving a wide-open space now occupied by Crescent Beach Family Park.
The 36,000 feet of Estero Island shoreline receded by an average of 28 feet, and in parts of the island’s north end, as much as 100 feet.
According to WINK-TV Meteorologist, Jim Farrell: “If Charley had been the size of Katrina, which was also a Category 4, we would have had up to a 15-foot storm surge.” One can only imagine the loss of life and property Fort Myers Beach would suffer from such a surge.
Islanders ignore the probability of another hurricane strike at their own peril. There’s no excuse for lack of awareness and preparation for those who visit, live on, or own property on a barrier island in a tropical zone.
In advance of each hurricane season, the Town of Fort Myers Beach issues Hurricane Re-Entry Passes to islanders and to island businesses. These passes expedite re-entry to Estero Island once a mandatory evacuation order has been lifted. Residents are encouraged to get their hurricane pass well in advance.
Plan evacuation routes and destinations, stock a hurricane kit, and make your property hurricane-ready well in advance of the June 1 – November 30 hurricane season. Preparation can provide peace of mind, and save precious time, in the event another Charley comes calling.