Polk's Three Hurricanes Make Disaster History

By S. L. FRISBIE, IV, Publisher
One major hurricane in a season is bad luck.

Two bad ones in one season beats the law of averages.

But three?

A schematic circulated at the end of the Hurricane Season of 2004 showed that the paths of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne intersected a few miles south of Bartow.

All three dealt a major blow to Fort Meade, Bartow, and much of the rest of Polk County, as well as other areas of Florida.

The damage was comparable to that wrought by Hurricane Donna, which raked across Polk County on Sept. 10, 1960.

Charley and Jeanne caused extensive property damage and power outages; Frances, a slowpoke, dumped more than half a foot of water on an area still coping with Charley, making the county even more vulnerable to Jeanne.

All three hurricanes struck within the space of 44 days; it was as if lightning had struck not twice but three times in the same place.

Fourteen deaths in Polk County - the most in any county in Florida - were attributed to the hurricanes, most of them after the storms had passed. There were deaths in falls during home repairs, and from carbon monoxide gas created by generators.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Bartow or Fort Meade.

Property damage was another story.

The high winds of Charley and Jeanne brought down numerous oaks and other large trees, some of them crashing through roofs or onto parked vehicles.

The high winds ripped away roofs by the hundreds.

Blue tarp roofs were a common sight throughout both communities; indeed, there are still quite a few of them in place as owners of homes and businesses work their way up waiting lists, more than 10 months after the first hurricane hit.

(The Fort Meade Leader office, closed after Charley took off about one-third of the roof on Aug. 13, is still closed. Restoration is expected to be completed soon.)

Many Were Powerless

Power outages, for the most part, were measured not in hours but in days, sometimes weeks.

Electric crews from other counties and other states joined forces with municipal electric departments in Bartow and Fort Meade and other Florida cities to restore power to the homes of people they did not know and would never meet.

Ocala's electric department sent help to Bartow; the cities of Alachua, Leesburg, Fort Pierce and Lakeland went to the aid of Fort Meade.

Recovery efforts moved into high gear, and the working relationship between county and municipal governments reached an unprecedented level of cooperation.

The county established an emergency operations center at Bartow Municipal Airport and a recovery operations center in the Stuart Center at the Polk County agriculture complex.

Other relief stations were spotted throughout the county.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other private and public agencies responded.

Individual volunteers stepped forward with chain saws, work gloves, and energy to help both neighbors and strangers recover from the storms. The volunteer turn-out was so large that a volunteer coordinating center was established at the Bartow Civic Center.

By many accounts, Polk County's recovery operations were among the best in Florida.

Many city and county emergency workers and mobilized Florida National Guardsmen left their own storm-damaged homes to provide relief for others.

Praise for the innovation and tireless efforts of recovery workers came from many corners. Work shifts of 12 hours, even 16, were common.

State and national officials, including President George W. Bush and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, visited Polk County to observe the recovery efforts and to promise help from state and federal governments.

First There Was Charley

Hurricane Charley hit Polk County on Friday, the 13th of August, around 6 p.m.

It struck a devastating blow to southwest Florida, then the eye headed up U.S. Highway 17 through central Florida, passing over Fort Meade before veering slightly east of Bartow and pouncing on Lake Wales.

Within the city limits of Bartow, the heaviest damage was in the southeast part of town. It was even greater in rural areas east of the city.

The most extensive damage locally was to oaks. While surprisingly few trees hit homes or other structures, power lines were dragged down throughout the storm's path.

About three inches of rain fell, not enough to cause widespread problems.

Priority in restoration of electricity went to the business district and to more densely populated or less extensively damaged residential areas. Isolated homes in rural areas were without electricity for two weeks and longer.

Open gas stations were the exception, and those retailers fortunate enough to receive shipments of generators sold them off the back of delivery trailers before they could get them inside their stores.

It soon became apparent that one of the greatest challenges would be hauling off the tons of fallen trees and other debris. The task far exceeded the capacity of city and county sanitation and parks departments.

The county contracted with two national firms that specialize in storm recovery for debris removal. That was a less than perfect solution, as many workers left the county for five days when the second hurricane approached.

Then There Was Frances

Polk County was still licking its wounds from Charley when Hurricane Frances, a storm the size of Texas, lumbered through Polk County on the Labor Day weekend - Saturday, Sunday and Monday, Sept. 4, 5 and 6.

Because the old Bartow water tower located between the police and fire stations had been damaged by Charley, both departments evacuated as Frances approached. The police station was relocated at the Dept. of Transportation District 1 headquarters on North Broadway, and fire trucks were stationed at the DOT, the Polk Street Community Center, Bartow High School, the Bartow Civic Center, and the Stuart Center.

The tank remained intact, but was dismantled after the hurricanes. It had been kept in a standby mode since construction of the new water treatment plant on U.S. Highway 17 north of town.

Although winds varied in strength between a tropical storm and a Category 1 hurricane, Frances dumped more than seven inches of rain on the Bartow-Fort Meade area.

The Peace River crested, and the Peace Creek drainage canal overflowed its berm at 3 p.m. on Sept. 6, flooding more than a dozen homes in Peace River Estates Unit 2. Water reached window sill level at some homes on Citrus Drive. In the weeks after the storm, residents pleaded with the county commission to buy their homes, and the county is seeking federal funds to do so. Rebuilding seems ill-advised, since there had been similar flooding in 1979 and again in 2002.

While there were few power outages attributed to Frances, the city cut electric service to the flooded Peace River Estates homes because of the danger of short circuits and electrocutions.

Since Frances lacked the windy punch of Charley, one of the biggest concerns - that debris still stacked at roadside from the earlier storm could become deadly missiles - did not come to pass.

Because high-profile ambulances cannot travel the roads safely in high winds, emergency medical service personnel were assigned to ride with sheriff's deputies when the winds reached the danger level. Hospital officials said at least six patients would have died had not EMS workers been assigned to ride with deputies.

It was another of Polk's innovative responses to the storms.

But Wait, There's More

Polk Countians held their breaths when Hurricane Ivan approached the state, then breathed a sigh of relief as it skirted the west side of Florida, reaching land in the Panhandle.

But the relief was short-lived.

Hurricane Jeanne hit Polk County in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, Sept. 26, combining the ferocious winds of Charley and the blinding rain of Frances.

It was not a good experience.

Structural damage was even greater than in the two earlier hurricanes.

Rainfall in 24 hours totaled 6.25 inches, nearly as much as fell during Frances' three-day visit.

At times, the torrential rain was blowing parallel to the ground.

Trees and limbs weakened by Charley and Frances fell victim to Jeanne, many of them falling across houses that were spared by the earlier storms.

More roofs were peeled back or blown completely away.

At Broadway and Van Fleet Drive, Bartow's busiest intersection, power was out well into the next day, and motorists treated the intersection like a four-way stop, showing far more patience and courtesy than they do when the traffic lights are operating.

Once again, the power outages were widespread and lengthy.

A Long Look Back

Post mortems of the hurricanes, and compiling of lessons learned, are ongoing.

Throughout the county, some 55,000 structures were damaged, 2,699 were destroyed, and nearly half the county's half-million residents lost power.

Some 1.8 million cubic yards of debris was created.

The county's schools were closed for 14 days. Damage to schools alone was estimated at $11 million. Every school building in the county sustained some damage; 10 percent were extensively damaged. One school reopened in a church.

While the wireless phone system failed in Polk County, the county's 800 megahertz radio communication system operated without interruption.

The honeymoon between county emergency management officials and FEMA was short-lived; the county blamed "FEMA bean counters" for disallowing expenses long after they were incurred with the blessing of agency officials who were on the scene earlier.

Members of Congress got involved to prod FEMA to loosen its pursestrings.

Contracts between the county and emergency providers are being drawn for future disasters.

City-county interlocal agreements are being executed for debris removal.

The county's emergency response plan is being rewritten based on lessons learned from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

As far as anybody can determine, it's the first time in history that one county has been hit by three major hurricanes in one season.

It is a record Polk Countians hope will never be broken, or even equaled.

(Jennifer Starling did extensive research for this article, assisted by Dawn Wade and Peggy Kehoe.)