(Above) NOAA image of Hurricane Charley making landfall on the Barrier Islands just after 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2004. Below, Australian pines on Sanibel suffered heavy damage. (Sanibel Library photo) Bottom, the face of Captiva Drive was changed. (Photo by SC photographer Dorothy Wallace)
(Above) NOAA image of Hurricane Charley making landfall on the Barrier Islands just after 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2004. Below, Australian pines on Sanibel suffered heavy damage. (Sanibel Library photo) Bottom, the face of Captiva Drive was changed. (Photo by SC photographer Dorothy Wallace)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sanibel and Captiva knew Charley was out there in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 13, 2004, but the infamous storm took a late turn and hit the islands straight on. The Santiva Chronicle looks back to that day 10 years ago in this story by one of Southwest Florida's leading writers and historians, Timothy M. Jacobs.

Hurricane Charley aftermathIn the beginning of August 2004 island life was what it should be – a nirvana. Local year round residents were enjoying the shorter lines at Baileys General Store, less traffic along Periwinkle, and plenty of parking near the Sanibel Lighthouse. The topic of conversation in the barber shops and watering holes was the impending increase of the Causeway toll jumping from $2 up to $6. They were perhaps unaware that on Aug. 4, a tropical wave formed off the west coast of Africa and in a short span of 10 days would disrupt their island life.

The Path of Charley

The wave continued to travel westerly, picking up speed and steadily becoming more organized over the open Atlantic Ocean. As it approached the Lesser Antilles on Aug. 9, it grew into a tropical depression. One day later, stirring winds between 40 to 70 miles per hour, the depression was now a tropical storm and was christened with the name “Charley.” It did not take long for Charley to go from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane.

The local paper warned its readers: “SW FLA in path of storm forecast.” It furthered stated “The hurricane center’s five-day forecast track of Charley puts Southwest Florida within the cone where the storm is expected to travel.” Residents were reminded to review their hurricane plans.

Charley was predicted to be a Category 1 by the time it would hit Florida, but the combination of warm water and little wind in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico only added fuel to the hurricane's fury.

With the storm now on the fast path to Southwest Florida, the Fort Myers News-Press dedicated four pages of its Aug. 12 issue to hurricane preparedness. After all, it’s been 44 years since Donna made her appearance. Charley had also been upgraded to a Category 2.

Evacuations Begin

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, while Captiva, along with other areas were placed on evacuation notice. Within a moment of the list being announced, the evacuations started. Sanibel began the process at 7 a.m., prior to the governor’s Captiva Drive after Charleyannouncement. It was estimated it would take 21 hours to evacuate certain areas. Schools were now canceled and the Florida Department of Transportation made the decision to keep all bridges open and waived the tolls to help reduce traffic. The island was under a recommended order to leave, and it took about three days to clear the islands.

South Seas Plantation general manager Chris van der Baars relocated nearly 1,000 guests and 500 employees as the threat of Charley grew. After the storm passed, he made arrangements with authorities for 40 members of his staff to report to work, assess the damage, and begin the clean up process.

On Aug. 13, with Charley looming ominously close to the islands, the News-Press told its readers, “As Hurricane Charley strengthens, SW Floridians BATTEN DOWN.” The storm was now a Category 3 with top sustained winds at 105 mph. Gov. Bush, realizing the intensity and speed of the storm, altered his message to the islanders. “People in Captiva and Sanibel who are required to leave, if they go north, they’re going to be in trouble. The best thing is for them to stay in their own communities.”

Sanibel officials relocated to the Holiday Inn at Bell Tower and set up a temporary city hall equipped with TVs and computers to monitor Charley.

At 1:15 on the afternoon of Friday the 13th, winds reached 145 miles per hour, and Charley was again upgraded, this time to a Category 4, and was less than 70 miles from the islands. Then the worst fears came true for all of those along the Southwest coast of Florida. The storm took a sharp turn toward the east and headed for the tip of Captiva.

It was pretty much a last minute jog at that point,” says Steve Greenstein, who was the executive director of Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody was already evacuated and was waiting for the storm to go north.”

At 3:45, the hurricane made landfall on Captiva, and two hours later it moved out into Charlotte County.

Northern Captiva received the brunt of the wrath, and nearly all 300 homes on the island suffered some damage. The 27 Captivians who decided to ride out the storm were without power and communication. The last reports were Charley was only a Category 1 and was heading in a north direction for the Tampa area. They were caught off guard when it turned abruptly and was a Category 4 that rolled off the Gulf. Greenstein talked with officials who had remained on the island during the storm and “they said they would never stay behind again for another hurricane; it was quite the experience.”

Now they would spend days cut off from the mainland while those residents who did flee and hunker down in Fort Myers and nearby were forced to wait until officials deemed that the Causeway and islands were safe. It was as if residents were either trapped on the island or trapped on the mainland.

National and local meteorologists still have not come to a conclusion that explains why Charley intensified so rapidly and changed course. The main lesson from Charley, as well as with all other hurricanes, is simply to be prepared.

About the author

T.M. Jacobs, authorT.M. Jacobs is a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Florida Historical Society, member of the Corporate Board of the Gulf CoastWriters Assoc. and president owner of Jacobs Writing Consultants in Fort Myers. A student of the American Revolution, he is the author of several historical works, including the recently published Almost Home: The 1864 Diary of Sergeant Samuel E. Grosvenor. The book is available at amazon.com and has been featured in both the Santiva Chronicle and on CSPAN2's Book TV.