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15 years later: Looking back at Hurricane Charley, the first in a 'nightmare' hurricane season for Florida

August 13, 2019; 2:29 PM


Fifteen years ago, destructive Hurricane Charley made landfall as a powerful Category 4 hurricane along the Florida Gulf coastline on Aug. 13, 2004.

Charley was the first in a series of storms that hit the Florida coast in the 2004 season. AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski described the year as a "nightmare" for the state in terms of tropical storms.

The storm began in the Caribbean and moved northward toward Cuba. The initial thought was that it would weaken over Cuba, but it instead tracked west, Kottlowski said.

The storm was initially expected to make landfall in the highly populated Tampa Bay area, but a last-minute shift in the track caused the center of the storm to make landfall farther south near Charlotte Harbor.

This last-minute shift in the track caught many locals off guard. While the damage could have been much worse, the storm wreaked havoc in several Florida cities, including Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Orlando.

Not only did the storm's direction abruptly change, but the storm also rapidly intensified, strengthening from a weak Category 1 hurricane to a powerful Category 4 hurricane in only a few hours, Kottlowski said.

"Charley was a small but very powerful hurricane. The wind field around the hurricane was fairly small with hurricane-force winds not more than 25 to 35 miles out from the center," Kottlowski said.

Once making landfall, the storm unleashed an array of extreme weather impacts. Several tornadoes touched down, wind gusts up to 140 mph caused significant damage and heavy rainfall sparked flooding. In all, Charley spawned nine tornadoes in Florida, five in North Carolina and two in southeastern Virginia.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

A Port Charlotte hardware store worker tries to salvage items from the store Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004, in Port Charlotte. Hurricane Charley plowed through the area Friday afternoon leaving behind a path of destruction.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Homes damaged by Hurricane Charley are seen from an aerial view of the outskirts of Punta Gorda, Charlotte County, Florida, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Ron Berndt, left, and Scott Stone wear masks while removing wet, moldy carpet from TRA Associates Realty office Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004, in downtown Punta Gorda, Fla.

(AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)

Joe Mendez and Jackeline Montijo unload twisted pieces of metal at a scrap metal facility in Orlando, Aug. 24, 2004. Cleanup up of the areas hit by Hurricane Charley is expected to take months.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

A car remains on a hydraulic lift Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004, in Punta Gorda, Fla., 14 days after Hurricane Charley leveled the service station around it.

(AP Photo/ Robert Azmitia)

Persons work on the roof of Sports City Billards in Port Charlotte, Fla., Friday, Sept. 10, 2004, which was damaged in Hurricane Charley.

(AP Photo/Robert Azmitia)

Crews clear debris from Hurricane Charley at a mobile home community, Friday, Sept. 10, 2004, in Port Charlotte, Fla.

(AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)

Wanda Butler waits in her front yard near a large tree that was felled by Hurricane Charley as she waits for an insurance adjuster to arrive in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 1, 2004.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Vaughn Blake, center, a day laborer from Tampa, Fla., stacks boxes of slightly damaged merchandise at the Dollar Day$ store Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 in Punta Gorda, Fla.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are briefed by FEMA Director Mike Brown on the damage caused by Hurricane Charley at Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda, Fla. Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Bush, right, meets with his brother Gov. Jeb Bush, left, to receive a briefing on Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley Friday, Aug. 27, 2004 in Miami, Fla.

(AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., meets with Hurricane Charley victim Brenda Neighbors in Cleveland, Fla. on Friday, Aug. 20, 2004, as Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., second left, looks on.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The antique district of Arcadia, Fla., is in ruins Sept. 24, 2004, after Hurricane Charley swept through the area on Aug. 13, 2004.

(AP Photo/Jose Goitia)

Workers repair power lines in Baracoa, west of Havana, Cuba, Aug. 25, 2004. Hurricane Charley caused more than US$1 billion in damage to Cuba when it swept across the island earlier this month.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Blue FEMA tarps still cover the roof of this home Thursday April 24, 2008 in Arcadia, Fla. Four years after Hurricane Charley blew through this town, a trail of destruction remains in its wake.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

An abandoned home damaged by Hurricane Charley is seen April 24, 2008 in Arcadia, Florida.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Blue tarps given out by FEMA cover several roofs in Lake Wales, Fla., in this April 25, 2005, photo, several months after hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, passed through the area.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The main building of Charlotte High School stands empty, supported by massive metal bracing, Aug. 11, 2005, in Punta Gorda, Fla. The school was severely damaged one year ago when Hurricane Charley took an unexpected turn and roared through the town.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Amy Hill, left, and Annette Sisanh stand near donated water that they hope to give out to rural victims of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, from outside Sisanh's home, Sept. 19, 2004 in Alturas, Fla.

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A truck hauling electrical transformers passes through downtown Punta Gorda, Fla., Monday, Aug. 23, 2004. Nearly a million customers lost electricity on Aug. 13, after Hurricane Charley.

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Rotting oranges lie in a citrus grove Sept. 3, 2004, near Fort Pierce, Fla. With Hurricane Frances coming on the heels of Hurricane Charley, Florida's $9 billion citrus industry potentially faces the greatest crop damage it has seen since the freezes of the 1980s.


The powerful winds were the biggest threat to the cities, causing most of the destruction. The winds knocked down power lines, trees, traffic lights and signage throughout the cities. Many of the cities' residents lost part, if not all, of their homes, and some even lost their lives. Charley was directly responsible for at least 10 deaths in the U.S. It is estimated to have caused approximately $17 billion in damages.

"The hurricane acted more like a large tornado," Kottlowski said.

"The tightly wrapped-up wind pattern around the storm allowed it to remain a hurricane as it tracked northeast and through the Orlando area during the evening of August 13th."

Charley caused considerable wind damage to the Punta Gorda and northern Fort Myers area before tracking straight toward Orlando, where it caused a 25- to 50-mile-wide path of wind damage all the way to Daytona Beach along Florida's east coast.

Because Charley moved so swiftly over Florida, the storm never had time to weaken to a tropical storm. Charley remained a Category 1 hurricane when it exited the state over New Smyrna Beach and back out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Typically, inland communities are not often struck by hurricane-force winds with reported damage to trees, mobile homes and crops. About two million customers lost power in Florida and citrus farmers suffered $200 million in crop damage.

After moving out of Florida into the Atlantic Ocean, the hurricane re-strengthened slightly as it accelerated toward the coast of South Carolina. This re-intensification was temporary. Charley came ashore again near Cape Romain, South Carolina, on Aug. 14, 2004, as a weakening hurricane. It continued to cause damage as it moved up the eastern U.S.

The extensive storm damage led the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to retire the name Charley in 2005. When a hurricane causes extreme damage or loss of life, the WMO removes the name from the rotating list of names used for Atlantic storms.

After Hurricane Charley ravaged the state, Florida was hit with three more hurricanes in the 2004 season: Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. All three of these storms struck during the month of September.

Damage from Charley remained when the subsequent storms hit. Roofers were not able to repair every damaged home in time for the next three storms that moved through the state. News reports emerged that captured hundreds of homes covered by blue tarps to keep the rain from causing further damage. Some homes had blue tarps over them well into the following year, Kottlowski said.

RELATED:
Personal Accounts: Florida's Anniversary of Hurricane Charley
Photos: August is notorious for destructive hurricanes in US
AccuWeather's 2019 Atlantic hurricane season forecast

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