Charley: My Perspective 10 Years Later

It was August 2004. President Bush was running for reelection, the iPod was the item of choice for listening to music, and people were getting ready to watch the Summer Olympics in Greece. I was a student at Central Florida Community College (now known as the College of Central Florida), and had two part-time jobs: A clerk at a grocery store in Belleview, Fla. and a lab assistant for the science department at CFCC. I was on the fence of whether I should study meteorology or journalism, but I was on a meteorology track at the time. I was living in Summerfield, which is three miles south of Belleview or 15 miles south of Ocala. It was just a few days before the fall semester started when Tropical Depression Three came on my radar. I kept writings to document what was happening at the time. Here’s what I wrote on the night of August 9…

At 11 p.m. EDT, Three was located 165 miles west of Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. Models have this thing going towards the west, then west-northwest, then, maybe, get into the gulf. The 2 p.m. GFDL model run has Three as a possible hurricane a couple hundred miles west of Naples on Saturday. The BAM Medium has it not far off the coast of Ft. Myers on Saturday. These long range models aren’t etched in stone. It could ruin my final weekend of freedom, [or] it could skip away. We’ll see. As of now, it looks real good on the satellite imagery and it could strengthen as predicted. The SHIPS model has it as a hurricane in 72 hours. It gives me something to watch. 

The “final weekend of freedom” bit refers to a planned trip to Ormond Beach, which borders Daytona Beach to the north. My mother has a timeshare in Ormond, and her time slot started when Charley would impact Central Florida. 

The next morning, Three became Tropical Storm Charley as it was 450 miles south-southeast of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Charley was moving rapidly to the west-northwest with 40 mph maximum sustained winds. Twenty-four hours later, it had its eye on Jamaica with winds of 65 mph with it’s forward speed not changing much. Hurricane watches were already issued for the Florida Keys. It became a hurricane 12 hours later as the center of circulation moved just to the south of Jamaica. Charley started to move northwest the next morning. As of the 5 AM EDT advisory on August 12, hurricane warnings were issued for southwest Florida and the Keys. Hurricane watches were issued for portions of coastal West Central Florida – including Tampa Bay. My level of concern increased. Here’s what I wrote on the evening August 12…

After waking up at 7:30 a.m., I was still wondering if I really did wake up and was in some kind of weird dream. I was pondering whether the forecasts and satellite imagery were real. Since Monday, forecast models have been pretty consistent on a storm named “Charley” striking Florida’s gulf coast. I was thinking that things would change. They didn’t. 

I went to work for the 11-4 shift. It was packed! It was constantly busy with no break in sight. It was like that all day long. Some people feared the storm. However, some employees and customers denied the thought of the storm coming to the area. One woman said it will just bounce off Cuba and go away. Some said, “God will make it go somewhere else.” 

I was told management at my job that the store would likely close because of the storm. Marion County Schools and CFCC planned on being closed, too. It was looking like I would have time to prepare for what might happen. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the media pretty much agreed that Charley would likely make a direct impact on Tampa Bay. This meant that the storm – moving northeast – would make a direct impact on Ocala. At its projected speed and intensity, it looked like it would be a category 1 hurricane at best by time it got to our area. Living in a home that I wouldn’t call safe for winds above 100 mph, I was became somewhat concerned – especially if this storm were to intensify. There was also one thing I noticed…

Tomorrow will be Friday the 13th. Interesting. I always knew some of the weirdest things happen on that day. 

As a meteorology student and weather fanatic, I await this storm with excitement. I’ve never experienced hurricane force winds before and it would be an interesting experience. However, another side of me thinks about the possible damage and the threat of lives being lost…

The next morning (August 13), I kept tabs with local media as early as 5:30 in the morning. Not a whole lot changed with the forecast and prep mindsets. 

Sometime after noon, WFTV-TV Chief Meteorologist Tom Terry went against the general consensus and made a bold forecast. When everyone was screaming “Tampa Bay” for Charley’s destination of choice, Terry said that this storm would eventually be an Orlando storm. Charley started making a nudge to the right, which gave him suspicion of it hitting the Port Charlotte and Fort Myers area – not Tampa Bay. I started to notice the nudge, too. Did this mean that Tampa Bay and Ocala would be in the relative clear? With this path, this would place the two areas in the left-front quadrant of the hurricane. This is the weaker side of the storm; therefore, winds would not be as strong.

Then, at 1:15 PM EDT, the NHC said that maximum sustained winds have jumped from 125 mph to 145 mph. This was now a category four hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Dropsondes from reconnaissance aircraft noted that the minimum central pressure fell from 964 mb at 11:22 AM EDT, to 941 mb at landfall nearly 4.5 hours later (Pasch et al, 2004). I was stunned by the sudden increase in strength. I was thankful and disappointed at the same time. I was thankful that our domicile would likely be okay, but disappointed as a weather fanatic that I would miss the chance to experience such a storm. 

The storm was compact – kind of like Hurricane Andrew 12 years earlier. This kept the effects to a smaller geographic area. With such a small-scale storm, any change in path could change the impacts from Charley in any given area. In fact, the strongest winds were within 6 nautical miles of the center of circulation (Pasch et al, 2004). If you were the unlucky family that was close to this storm’s center, you were in for one hell of a ride.

Charley made landfall at 3:45 PM EDT near Cayo Costa, north of Captiva, according to the NHC’s final report on the storm (Pasch et al, 2004). The eye then passed over Punta Gorda an hour later. At 6:10 PM EDT, I wrote…

Apparently, the upper and mid-level trough and a cold front decided to move slightly east and change the projected course of the storm. Instead of hitting Tampa Bay like it was  projected this morning, it hit about 50-60 miles south and made landfall near Charlotte Harbor. 

I’ve witnessed some live shots from Port Charlotte on WKMG-TV from reporter Donald Forbes. The area was slammed. Just before landfall, Forbes made wind measurement from his handheld wind gauge of 58 mph. Not long later, [his location] was hit really hard and he had to retreat.

As of now, some squally weather is on the way from the south and the sky is starting to get dark. 

I was glued to the Orlando TV stations through the evening as Charley got closer and closer. One interesting aspect I realized that evening: The people who evacuated from Tampa Bay to Orlando-metro got to experience the hurricane after all. Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got to enjoy some of that hurricane.  

As of the 8 PM EDT advisory, winds decreased to 85 mph with a minimum central pressure of 970 mb. The forward speed had increased as the upper-level pattern began speeding up the movement of Charley. The storm went through Orlando and vicinity around 9:30 PM EDT. You could see the live Florida Department of Transportation cameras across the metro area shake – some violently. The major highways – Interstate 4, the Turnpike, and other toll roads – were deserted except for the occasional crazy person driving at full speed and/or with their hazard lights flashing. Central Florida was mostly hunkered down. 

Meanwhile, I was outside my home with my VHS-C camera filming what was happening around me. Was it exciting? As much as watching grass grow. The highest wind gust at the Ocala airport was 24 mph, according to a post I wrote the following day. At Leesburg (18 miles southeast of Summerfield), the highest gust recorded was 39 mph (Pasch et al, 2004). Gainesville’s highest gust was 15 mph. It was relatively a gentle breeze compared to what was happening an hour to my southeast. The lowest pressure recorded at my home was 1008 mb, per my writings.

The change in path did shock some people. But the NHC did have warnings in place for southwestern Florida 23 hours before the storm made landfall. 

“No one near the landfall location should have been surprised by the arrival of this hurricane,” according to the NHC’s final storm report. 

Finally, I watched as the storm was heading right along the I-4 corridor towards Daytona Beach. That’s right: The place I was planning on taking a weekend vacation before classes started for the fall term. A small break before I decided to dive into a 16-credit-hour regiment of Spanish, chemistry, calculus, and a humanities class (which didn’t end in excellence). I watched as TV reporters flailed in the wind in Daytona as the storm was barely a category 1 hurricane. By midnight, Charley gave Florida the middle finger as it’s center of circulation entered the Atlantic waters to go screw with the Carolinas with 70-knot winds. 

The next morning, I was somewhat anxious to see what had happened to Central Florida. I had to make a quick decision as to stay in Summerfield, or join my mother and stepdad in Ormond for a short vacation that might suck.