US-NEWS-WEA-FLA-2004-HURRICANES-2-MI

The surf pounds a mobile home park on the Indian River at Jensen Beach, Fla., on Sept. 4, 2004, the year four strong hurricanes hit the state in six weeks.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Its name was Hurricane Charley and it was only the beginning of what would be remembered 15 years later as the worst hurricane season Floridians had ever endured.

“The 2004 season is probably my No. 1 or my No. 2 top, bizarre weather phenomenon,” said WOFL meteorologist Jayme King. “Before then, meteorologists never thought something like that was probable. We got Andrew in the ’90s, and that was thought to be this ‘once in a century’ kind of storm. Then in 2004, Florida gets hit by four strong hurricanes back-to-back. If you go down to Polk County or some of the other hard hit areas — Port Charlotte — now, there are still bruises that have never recovered.”

Meteorologists had their eye on Category 2 Hurricane Charley on Aug. 12, 2004, as it swung over Cuba, and were not concerned with it as it was predicted to miss Florida.

That was the case until an unusually strong area of pressure from the west caused Charley’s eye to shrink and its winds to rapidly intensify, according to the National Hurricane Center’s records.

Charley made landfall in Port Charlotte at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 13 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds blowing up to 145 mph.

The storm plowed its way up the Interstate 4 corridor taking down trees, power lines, buildings and even blowing cars off the road. It arrived in Orlando at 9 p.m. where the Orlando International Airport recorded wind speeds up to 105 mph.

Charley caused $14 billion worth of damage and was directly responsible for the deaths of 10 people in the United States as it made its way north toward South Carolina. One of the casualties was a 5-year-old girl from Orange County who was killed after a vehicle had been blown into the car she was in, according to a 2004 Orlando Sentinel article.

The first reported deaths were Gordon Hawkins, 83, and his wife Joanne, 82, of Port Charlotte. Gordon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and friends of Joanne described her as “stubborn.”

No one was surprised that the couple chose to stay in their mobile home in Crystal Lake Park, according to a 2004 Sun Sentinel article.

The mobile home was annihilated, and the Hawkins’ bodies were found a few hundred feet away from where the home once stood.

Although small in size, Charley was the strongest hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“Charley took most of my roof, my shed, my fence and dropped a neighbor’s oak tree on my brand new boat,” said Orange County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Billy Richardson. “I had never seen anything like this. It just took down everything in its path.”

Richardson was a lieutenant at the time at station 33, and didn’t have time to mend his property damage.

“We thought (Charley) was going to jog to the right but instead it came right at us. We didn’t have enough time to recall people off on vacation,” Richardson said. “It was an all hands on deck situation. We were cutting trees, and putting tarps over roofs for days and weeks.”

Unfortunately, it was just a sign of what was yet to come.

Twenty-three days later Hurricane Frances made landfall on Hutchinson Island as a Category 2 storm, and passed north up to the Florida panhandle.

Seven people died as a direct result of Frances: one man in the Bahamas, five Floridians and one man in Ohio after Frances had downgraded into a tropical storm in the northern United States.

The damages were worth $9 billion.

Then came Ivan.

The Category 5 hurricane was blowing wind speeds higher than 156 mph as it cut through the Caribbean, but a subtropical ridge near Jamaica stifled the storm’s growth.

Despite Ivan’s gradual loss of strength due to environmental conditions such as cooler Gulf of Mexico waters, Ivan made landfall on the Florida panhandle as Category 3 hurricane on Sept. 16.

Ivan was responsible for $14.2 billion worth of damages, and directly killed 92 people. A large portion of the total came from the Caribbean along with eight Floridians killed on the panhandle.

Richardson, and a Central Florida strike team, drove to the panhandle to assist in cleanup, however transport to the Pensacola Bay area became extremely difficult because of a quarter mile of bridge that had collapsed in the bay. The Interstate 10 bridge system across Pensacola as a whole was severely damaged in several spots because of severe wave action and a 10- to 15-foot storm surge.

“We spent about two weeks putting out fires on the panhandle before we had to turn around,” Richardson said.

Hutchinson Island was once again the welcome mat, this time for Category 3 Hurricane Jeanne. The storm obliterated huge sections of beach along the east coast and flooded areas already saturated by previous storms.

Three more deaths were reported in Florida, bringing the total of 2004 to 26 dead Floridians, according to NHC records.

However, Jeanne’s true devastation is remembered to have taken place in Haiti, where estimates total about 3,000 deaths that Hurricane Jeanne directly and indirectly caused, the NHC said.

“My biggest takeaway from that year was the amount of damage a single storm can, and quickly,” Richardson said. “It truly means that everyone needs to be self sustained for 72 hours. People expect the government to come running when problems pop up. We can’t. We can’t be everywhere at once.”

The end of the hurricane season came as a welcome to all, albeit a somber one as 46 Americans were killed directly by hurricane forces and had done damages up to $44 billion.

The 2004 season painted Florida as a target for strong tropical development thanks to the “perfect nightmare scenario,” King said.

The tropical waters were warm, and low wind shear in the atmosphere allowed the storms to grow like dangerous dandelions, but there was one other natural factor at play not helping Florida.

“There was a high pressure atmosphere that had a clockwise air flow and it was turning the islands in the Caribbean into a catwalk, or a runway and sending these storms right into us,” King said.

The 15th anniversary of the 2004 storms comes as the 2019 season approaches the peak time of tropical development, King said.

Historically, Sept. 10 has served as the chosen date by meteorologists as the “peak date” of hurricane season, but with the 2004 season in mind, King believes the true peak is much earlier.

“We’re entering peak season now,” he said. “If 2004 taught us anything, it’s that you have to be prepared for the worst. These storms can develop fast and with little heads up. This is the time to get supplies and work out a plan should a storm come toward us again.”