The month of August, 2004 has been one of the most active months since records have been taken. With seven named storms, four hurricanes, three major hurricanes, and two Category Four Hurricanes, August, 2004 has certainly made its mark on history. However, it was the devastation caused by Hurricane Charley that made it a more pronounced mark, but also a deep scar to those who managed to survive the catastrophe.
Hurricane Charley had been a modest storm system in the Western Atlantic, and really didn't become a serious threat until it reached the coast of Western Cuba with winds of 105 mph. It maintained that strength as it crossed that mountainous island terrain, and then picked up steam and forward speed before making an abrupt right hand turn into the Port Charlotte and Fort Myers area of Florida killing 25, and leaving at least 7.5 billion dollars in damage.
It had been quite a dormant summer in the Tropical Atlantic. Through sixty of the first 61 days of the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season, there had been no tropical depressions, tropical storms, or hurricanes throughout the entire basin. There had been moments where something could have developed, but it would only fall apart, and become an afterthought. Things would soon change though as we approached the end of July.
On the very last day of July, 2004, we finally had something to worry about as Alex formed off the Southeast coast of the United States. This would only be the beginning as over the next 30 days, eight storms would emerge from the warm tropical waters of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. One would be called Bonnie, a tropical storm that proceeded Charley into the Florida coastline with winds of only 65 mph.
The other storm would endure some trials and tribulations going through the Lesser Antilles, and struggling to become a hurricane. However, Charley would gradually strengthen not just into a hurricane, but a very dangerous Category Two storm as it headed into the Isle of Youth and Western Cuba. After crossing the rugged West Cuban terrain, and hanging on to its 105 mph winds, Charley emerged over water again in the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
In waters that can be very warm and quite conducive to rapid intensification as we saw with Hurricane Opal in 1995, Hurricane Iris in 2001, and Hurricanes Isidore and Lili in 2002, Charley rapidly deepened over the next thirteen hours or so as its pressure dropped some 32 millibars, or almost an inch of Hg during that time to 941 mb, or 27.79 inches of Hg. It then made a dramatic turn to the right that caught many by surprise.
But first, we shall talk about Charley's modest beginnings. Many of the famous or notorious people and events in history didn't always start out that way. Most, if not all came from modest beginnings. Charley was no exception. Forming on the heels of Tropical Storm Bonnie in the Atlantic Basin, Charley emerged first as a tropical depression in the Western Atlantic on Monday, August 9th, 2004 some 50 miles to the southeast of Grenada in the Windward Islands.
Moving toward the West-Northwest, Tropical Depression Three, as it was first referred to, had only 35 mph winds, and very high pressure for a tropical low at 1010 mb, or 29.83 inches of Hg. However, a short time later in the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 10th, Charley became the third named storm of the season with 40 mph winds. The storm did struggle to maintain its precious structure as its rapid forward motion to the West-Northwest at 24 mph made things quite difficult.
Some sixty hours before landfall, Charley was still just a strong tropical storm with 65 mph winds as it moved toward the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Twenty-four hours later, Charley had become a hurricane, but only a minimal one at that with just 85 mph sustained winds. It was at this point though that something began to change with the tropical system, and that was the forward speed of the storm, which went down to only 15 mph.
Considerably dropping in forward speed, Charley was able to gather itself, organize, and become stronger. Over the next 24 hours or so, winds increased by 20 mph while pressure in the eye of the storm fell some 16 mb. Forecasters became wary of the storm as a result of this short burst of rapid intensification. It would be quelled temporarily as Charley crossed the mountainous terrain of Western Cuba, but fears quickly returned once it was realized that the storm remained intact by virtue of its fast visit to the island nation.
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Moving back out over the water in the Florida Straits, Charley took dead aim at Florida by first rambling over the Dry Tortugas and past Key West in the Florida Keys. During this time, Charley had winds of 105 mph, but it would get much stronger as it hit an apparent warm eddy, and rapidly strengthened in the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
Barometric pressure in the eye of the storm bottomed out at 941 mb after a 32 mb drop in just 12 hours, and a 48 mb drop in just 36 hours. Winds quickly rose to a gasping 145 mph, and most troubling of all, the now Category Four Hurricane made an abrupt turn toward the east. A turn that would spare the major metropolis of Florida's Gulf Coast, Tampa and St. Petersburg, and barrel up Charlotte Harbor into the Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Fort Myers section of the Sunshine State.
Despite the quite accurate forecast by the National Hurricane Center, many Floridians living in the area were caught off guard, and had very little time to prepare and evacuate. Many were still out on the roads as the edge of the storm was moving in. Most of the two million people, who had evacuated in advance of the storm, were mostly north of the area going toward Tampa.
Meanwhile, barrier islands such as Captiva and Sanibel, which have many multi-million dollar homes, first bore the brunt of the storm's fury. Florida Governor Jeb Bush called on the Federal Government for immediate assistance as his administration indicated that the storm could leave behind some $15 billion dollars in damage.
Ironically, it was in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew that state officials in Florida as well as Dade County officials, and residents of South Florida grew restless and angry by virtue of the lack of assistance from the Federal Government under the first President George Bush. The controversy would be one in a number of events that would cost George Herbert Walker Bush the election in November, 1992 as he portrayed himself to be out of touch with the American public.
As the storm slammed into Punta Gorda, a mobile home park received no mercy from the wrath of Charley. The park was completely destroyed while hundreds of thousands of residents were left without power in Southwestern Florida. Some 12,000 homes were destroyed in Charley's path as it carved a path of destruction across the central part of the state, and brought 100 mph winds to even Orlando, where several amusement parks including Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World Orlando, and Disney's Animal Kingdom were closed.
The Atlantic coast was spared either as Daytona Beach received some damage from the storm as well before it entered the water again in the Atlantic on early Saturday morning, August 14th. Charley, now a minimal hurricane, would make a second landfall near Georgetown, South Carolina, and then weaken to a tropical storm. As of this time, there have been at least 25 deaths attributed to this storm, five thousand people out of work, several thousand still homeless, and in addition to the nearly 12,100 homes destroyed, there were another 19,100 homes severely damaged.
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