5 years after Hurricane Charley, town in `extreme makeover’

Aug 13, 2009


From the Miami Herald, August 13, 2009


When residents of Punta Gorda climbed out of the shelters and started cleaning up after Hurricane Charley five years ago, they saw an opportunity for a renaissance of sorts for the quiet southwest Florida town.

The monstrous storm took an abrupt turn and roared ashore here, packing 150 mph winds and devastating the harbor town of about 17,000 residents before churning through the middle of the state to Orlando and Daytona Beach. ”The entire downtown area of Punta Gorda looked like Beirut,” recalled Becky Bovell, director of the local visitors’ bureau.

Today, though, you’d never know Charley had been here. Determined residents, developers and local officials armed with insurance money, federal grants and a vision are putting the finishing touches on what they like to call the area’s ”extreme makeover.” ”We sort of labeled it ‘urban renewal by disaster,’ ” said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County’s emergency management director who guided recovery in the days after the storm. ”I think people who haven’t been back here would be shocked by the progress that has been made, particularly when you stop to think it’s been in the face of this recession.”

Hurricane Charley was the first and strongest of four major storms that hit Florida in 44 days in 2004. In Charlotte County, Charley did $3.2 billion in damage, including 11,000 homes and 300 businesses. Fourteen deaths in the county were blamed on the storm.

The downtown Punta Gorda area that took a direct hit from the Category 4 storm on Aug. 13, 2004, now has many new brightly colored storefront businesses, hotels and restaurants. A sparkling new events center replaced an aging auditorium. A spruced up marina on Charlotte Harbor features shopping and a seafood restaurant touted as the largest eatery in southwest Florida.

Run-down mobile homes that Charley reduced to piles of sticks have been replaced by a new affordable housing complex. Six schools and six fire stations have been rebuilt. A new airport terminal has so far attracted two national carriers. Across the Peace River in Port Charlotte, the Tampa Bay Rays play their spring training games at a newly refurbished ball park.

The government-issued blue tarps that were ubiquitous on roof tops even a year after the storm are nowhere in sight. The few aesthetic remnants left are the trees out by Interstate 75 that were snapped in half as the tightly wound hurricane barged through. ”When you see the changes that have come about, it’s nothing short of miraculous,” said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who came to town Thursday to commemorate the storm’s anniversary. ”This is an incredible day.”

About half the residences destroyed in the county were mobile homes, according to Sallade, and 90 percent of those did not meet new codes put in place after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. ”It gave us, in some areas, a blank slate to rebuild and revitalize,” Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik said.

The notoriety and the post-hurricane development also accelerated the area’s growth as a tourist destination, Bovell said.

Tucked into Charlotte Harbor about 25 miles north of Fort Myers, the Punta Gorda area was one of the last underdeveloped destinations on Florida’s southwest coast, and the builders who came after the storm took notice. Some 500 new hotel rooms have been added just in the past couple years.

The timing worked out OK, too. Local officials said most of the projects were done or near completion when the economy tanked. ”There were things that needed to be rebuilt in a better way, and the opportunity for new construction, new infrastructure,” Bovell said. ”The hurricane was sort of a catalyst for bringing this all together.”