On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004, residents of Sanibel Island expected Hurricane Charley to pass them by — just as every major storm had for the last 44 years.
“We had brushes with storms,” said former Sanibel Island Fire Chief Richard Dickerson, who became chief of the Longboat Key Fire and Rescue Department in April, “but no hurricanes and no bad tropical storms.”
Projections called for Charley to head 100 miles north of Sanibel, which would make it the first major storm to hit the Sarasota-Bradenton area in 57 years. Longboat Key residents prepared for a mandatory evacuation Aug. 12.
But early on the morning of Aug. 13, 2004, Charley changed its course.
That morning — Friday the 13th — Dickerson, along with police and other fire officials, was suddenly bracing for a direct hit.
Dickerson shared his memories of Hurricane Charley Thursday, June 4, at the seventh annual Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce Hurricane Preparedness Seminar. He hopes Key residents and business owners will heed the lessons that Sanibel Island took from Charley — lessons that are relevant given the similarities between the two barrier islands.
The islands are similar in size, Longboat Key being just under 11 miles long, compared to Sanibel’s 12 miles. Both islands have a high-density beachfront population. Vegetation on the islands is similar, with both having a large number of Australian pines, which blow over easily during storms as the result of their shallow root structures. And, both have limited entry points. Longboat Key is accessible by two bridges. At the time of Hurricane Charley, Sanibel Island was accessible by one entry point. Longboat Key has a single major road that serves as the main artery for the island — Gulf of Mexico Drive — while Sanibel has two major roads, Periwinkle Way and Captiva Road.
Dickerson said the most important advice that each island should follow can be summarized in a single word: “Evacuate.”
Weathering the storm
The morning of Aug. 13, 2004, Dickerson, who was incident commander on a unified command system for Hurricane Charley, prepared Sanibel Island for the storm. Although an evacuation was mandatory for the entire island, approximately 200 of the island’s 6,000 residents decided to ride out the storm at home.
Around 11 a.m., fire and police officials left the island and set up an emergency command center in Holiday Inn at Bell Tower, in south Fort Myers. As Dickerson left, he predicted that the island would look different when he returned: Charley had picked up speed as it headed toward land. In four hours, what had been a Category 2 storm had become a Category 4. Forecasters predicted an 18-foot storm surge.
Around noon, residents who stayed on the island began to call — some begging emergency personnel to help them get off the island. According to Dickerson, officials told those residents that they would come back to the island to help them when the storm subsided. They told each caller to get to the most secure room in his or her home — usually the bathroom, because it has the fewest windows.
Later that afternoon, fire and police officials returned to the island. Because Charley was fast moving with a small eye, the predicted storm surge didn’t materialize, meaning the island was spared the worst. Damage resulted from wind, not floods.
As officials made their way around the island, they found that people who stayed behind said the same thing — that they would never do it again. Even local wildlife seemed shaken by the storm. Woodpeckers, which normally stay away from people, flew directly up to workers looking for food.
The evening of Aug. 13, near the Sanibel Causeway toll plaza, Dickerson spotted a Jacuzzi that had been blown from the back of a home — one of many household structures that was found in the streets after Charley.
As Dickerson drove over the Sanibel Causeway, one of the most striking sights was the Sanibel Lighthouse.
It was now visible from the bridge for the first time, because so many trees had fallen during the storm.
The next morning, Dickerson and Sanibel Police Chief Bill Tomlinson rode over the island by helicopter to assess the damage. One of the first things they noticed was that buildings with metal roofs faired the best during the storms. On the ground, Dickerson noticed that windows — even those without shutters — faired well as long as nothing had hit them.
After assessing the damage and searching for victims (no one, to Dickerson’s knowledge, was injured during the storm), officials began the process of distributing supplies, cleaning up and restoring services.
Approximately two or three days after the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived with blue tarp, which they used to cover damaged roofs to prevent mildew and mold. The Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived three or four days after Charley hit and brought supply kits. National Guard troops also came to Sanibel.
Residents were allowed to return to the island after five days, but many had to wait three to six weeks for utilities to be restored.
And, there were other problems residents and officials hadn’t predicted. As the result of debris, drivers faced frequent flat tires. Officials began keeping spare-tire kits in their vehicles.
In all, the city of Sanibel estimates total damages to the island at $13.4 million for city property and $782 million for private property.
Today, Dickerson says Sanibel Island doesn’t look much different than it did five years ago, although there are fewer Australian pines and more native Florida plants.
Could it happen on Longboat?
It’s been 62 years since Longboat Key experienced a major storm. But town officials warn residents not to get complacent.
Despite the damage Charley brought to Sanibel Island, the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because there was little storm surge, hence, little flooding.
According to James Linkogle, projects manager for Longboat Key Public Works, most hurricane-related deaths occur not because of wind, but as the result of storm surge. The focus of this year’s hurricane conferences has been storm surge, he said.
“When we say, ‘please leave the island,’ we mean please leave the island,” he said.