Despite the intervention of Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13, 2004, Jeri and Karl Magg of Sanibel made it to their daughter's wedding in Denver. Front from left, grandsons Kevin, Zachary and Kyle. Back, son-in-law John, daughter Carolyn, bride Kathy, groom Scott, and Jeri and Karl Magg. Photo courtesy Jeri and Karl Magg
Despite the intervention of Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13, 2004, Jeri and Karl Magg of Sanibel made it to their daughter's wedding in Denver. Front from left, grandsons Kevin, Zachary and Kyle. Back, son-in-law John, daughter Carolyn, bride Kathy, groom Scott, and Jeri and Karl Magg. Photo courtesy Jeri and Karl Magg

EDITOR'S NOTE: Longtime Sanibel resident Jeri Magg and her husband Karl evacuated as Hurricane Charley approached on Aug. 13, 2004, and spent five days off island. Here is her story.

Gray skies loomed overhead as I packed for our drive to Denver; our daughter’s wedding only a month away. It was Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2004. For the last few days, the media had been squawking about Hurricane Charley. Having ridden out a number of storms over the past 24 years on the island, my husband Karl and I were skeptical of the hype.

Suddenly Karl appeared in the doorway. “Our neighbors are evacuating,” he grumbled. “It’s the news media making a big deal out of nothing,” I answered returning to my suitcase. “I’d better secure the lines on the boat,” he stated, disappearing down the stairs.

A few minutes later, I flipped on The Weather Channel. The dreaded “cone of uncertainty” now included Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Forecasters predicted a 15-foot surge when the storm hit on Friday. The City of Sanibel was urging residents to evacuate before noon Friday. Fifteen-foot surge on an island six-foot above sea level—yikes. I went looking for Karl. “Where are we going with a little dog at this late date?” he asked. Scouring the internet, I found a room at the Best Western on Daniels Road that allowed pets.

Neither Karl nor I slept much that night as we carted photo albums, treasured rugs and other objects to the second floor.

Any doubts evaporated Thursday morning after two Sanibel police officers knocked at our door and urged us to leave. After stuffing clothes, two freezer chests and grocery bags into our two cars, we pulled away praying our house would survive.

Our hotel was in complete chaos. Refugees, accompanied by animals of all kinds, arrived carrying bags filled with their worldly possessions. No sandman came to help us sleep that night. Frantic calls from our daughters in Colorado reiterated news reports of the complete destruction of Sanibel.

Friday the 13th

On the morning of Friday the 13th, Charley was 155 miles south of Ft. Myers. The fierce winds and rain were causing traffic jams all over Ft. Myers. By 9 a.m. emergency personnel had evacuated Sanibel and Captiva. Three hours later, many of the hotels’ roof shingles were plummeting into the parking lot and the eye of Charley was 70 miles from Sanibel.

By 1 p.m., Charley was a Cat 3, 125 miles-an-hour, and 59 miles from Sanibel. An hour later the Sanibel Causeway closed, and the now Cat 4 storm was expected to come ashore on Sanibel in minutes. The screeching winds were so deafening our dog jumped into the bathtub to hide and folks across the hall dragged mattresses in front of the windows for protection.

Fortunately for Sanibel, the storm jogged north and by 3:00 was stalled west of Captiva. The last report we saw showed a three-foot storm surge crashing into the lobbies of hotels on Ft. Myers Beach. Then the lights went out. A portable radio and trusty flashlight became our best friends.

A few hours later, storm subsiding, we joined others escaping the suffocating heat of their rooms in the hotel’s parking lot. It was spooky sitting in the total dark, not a light to be seen for miles. Karl called a friend on Sanibel who said every Australian pine tree on Periwinkle was down, making the roads impassable.

Granola bars, but no ice

On Saturday, Karl went in search of food. A nearby Publix, with almost empty shelves, had a few boxes of granola bars. He scoffed them up. When informed that I didn’t like granola bars, he quipped, “You’re not hungry enough yet!”

Looking for another place with windows that opened, Karl remembered that the new owner of our recently sold condo on Kelley Road had invited us to use it in an emergency. We obtained the key and moved from the hotel. Family and friends called with more bad news.

Sanibel was devastated. Downed trees and power lines, damaged roofs and boats precariously perched on seawalls, littered the landscape. Island restaurants were giving away food.

Though able to open windows and eat gronola bars and hard-boiled eggs, we needed ice. And what about our daughter's wedding? When would we leave?

The City of Sanibel had set up shop at the Holiday Inn in Ft. Myers. Hundreds of residents flocked to the site to learn that no one would be allowed on the island until emergency personnel assessed the damage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sending recovery teams to help.

Friends in Estero, with electricity, invited us to stay. In hopes that Sanibel would be open soon. We declined but accepted a dinner invitation and spent most of the evening watching the devastating reports, our imaginations going wild. We also learned that Publix was distributing bags of ice.

Driving home on US 41, we noticed a Publix truck. We followed until it pulled into a parking lot—finally some ice!

A different island

On Monday, friends from New York offered their Punta Rassa condo; air conditioning included. That night we slept soundly for the first time in days.

On Tuesday morning, we trotted back to the Holiday Inn. Emergency workers had placed a big X on buildings deemed unsafe. The mayor read the list to the attentive crowd. Our house wasn’t on the list but a rental condo on Donax Street was! No one had been able to get on Captiva.

Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had brought front-end loaders, back hoes and chain saws to help clear downed power lines and the 110-foot Australian Pines from the the roads, the island would reopen on Wednesday morning to residents and property owners. No one knew when electricity would be restored.

The next morning, we were one of the first to cross the old draw bridge. Stopped by a soldier, rifle in hand, who checked our ID, we proceeded onto a different island. Downed trees, roofing tiles and power poles were piled up along the side of the road. The presence of military jeeps was chilling. A TV news truck followed as we turned onto our street.

Part of the asphalt roof of the condo across the canal was plopped in the middle of our yard. Our home seemed intact, no windows broken or roof tiles in the driveway. The pool’s broken screen enclosure lay across the seawall and the gas grill stood upside down inHurricane Charley debris, Sanibel the yard. Our boat had broken its stern line and the bow was resting on the seawall.

Our condo on Donax didn’t fare as well. Air conditioners hung off the roof, debris was everywhere. Owners were throwing furniture, carpeting and bedding over the stairwells into the parking lot.

We spent the unbearably hot next few days cleaning up before leaving for the wedding. Karl and a friend needed an ax to break up the asphalt roof in our yard. Periwinkle Way was unrecognizable and piles of furniture and debris were already accumulating along East and Middle Gulf Drives.

Hurricane Charley debris on Middle Gulf Drive.
(Dorothy Wallace photo)

The wedding goes on

Our daughter’s wedding was a success, but a friend called to say that grass was growing on the walls of our condo. He was able to get a truck and move whatever furniture hadn’t been ruined into our garage.

Upon returning to the island in the middle of September, we ventured a trip to our condo at South Seas Plantation, also completely water-logged. Twenty-foot-high piles of furniture lined San/Cap Road. Both condos were out of commission for the next season and ultimately needed to be refurbished. Telephone calls to workmen and insurance companies were part of our everyday.

The economy of both islands went south quickly, many businesses closing. It was a tough time, but we all stuck it out, helped each other and survived, painfully aware of how dependent we are on ice, electricity and our neighbors. Let’s hope we don’t see another Charley in our lifetime!

 

Jeri Magg, author of Historic Sanibel and Captiva Islands - Tales of Paradise, has been freelance writing for over 30 years with publishedJeri Magg, Sanibel author articles in local, regional and national magazines and newspapers. This former New Yorker relocated to Sanibel in 1980 with her husband Karl and daughters Carolyn and Kathy. Jeri "gave up her day job" as an adoption's counselor with the state of Florida to write full time in 1993.

A docent at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village for 15 years, Jeri has entertained and informed residents and visitors alike with historical stories at local libraries, retirement communities and last year conducted a special Sanibel Trolley tour for museum docents in training.

One of the founding members of the Gulf Coast Writer's Association, she is currently completing a fiction manuscript "Death by Deception," and then plans to start work on a follow-up history book about "the women behind the history of Sanibel and Captiva."