First Report: Hurricane Season 2004

Bill Wade provides an initial assessment of the multi-agency search and rescue operations that followed Hurricane Charley’s rampage through the Florida community of Punta Gorda.


The morning of Aug. 13, 2004, had firefighters throughout the Tampa Bay area of Florida taking the final steps to prepare themselves, their homes and their community for a threatened strike of Hurricane Charley. The storm, a Category 2 hurricane packing winds over 100 mph, was expected to head...


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The morning of Aug. 13, 2004, had firefighters throughout the Tampa Bay area of Florida taking the final steps to prepare themselves, their homes and their community for a threatened strike of Hurricane Charley. The storm, a Category 2 hurricane packing winds over 100 mph, was expected to head straight up into Tampa Bay later that afternoon. The National Hurricane Center was predicting a strong surge of water out of Tampa Bay and into the surrounding areas.

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Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Local firefighters responding to the community were met with downed trees, power lines and parts of houses and overturned cars in the wake of Hurricane Charley. Thousands of people evacuated the area before the storm struck.

Emergency officials in Bay area counties called for an unprecedented three-level evacuation affecting more than 300,000 people. Included in the area being evacuated were several City of Tampa fire stations, the Training Center and the Supply Division. The last time Tampa Bay took a direct hit from a hurricane was 1921, so dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane strike is based more on planning and reviewing the experiences of other communities that have been struck by a hurricane more recently. Following plans that have been in place for years, personnel on-duty from three of the evacuated Tampa fire stations took their trucks and equipment and set up at Raymond James Stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On a typical duty day, Tampa Fire Rescue has about 120 personnel on-duty. With the threat of such a strong storm striking the area, all days off and vacations were canceled. The on-call shift was recalled, bringing the fire and rescue forces available up to about 370 personnel. The third shift of firefighters, about 170 personnel, referred to as the standby shift, was not called into duty before the storm. This standby shift would be recalled after the storm to be a relief crew for those who had been working when the storm struck.

Neighboring Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue were also preparing to respond to their community needs once the storm had passed. Some fire stations had to be evacuated. Tampa and Hillsborough County share responsibility for the Port of Tampa and Port Sutton. In this large shipping port area, where an estimated three-fourths of all the hazardous materials in the State of Florida pass through, a hazardous materials team was pre-positioned to assess and deal with the damage that a hurricane strike would cause.

As the afternoon of Aug. 13 came, Hurricane Charley made some changes. The storm quickly jumped in strength, going from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane in less than 30 minutes. The winds were now in excess of 145 mph, which meant that there would be major structural damage along a wide area wherever the storm made landfall. A storm this strong would push water out of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay to a height of 13 feet or higher. Hurricane Charley would be the strongest storm to make landfall in Florida since Andrew in 1992.

About two hours before the storm was due to hit the densely populated communities around Tampa Bay, it rapidly changed direction, following a more easterly track. Charley made landfall along the southwest Florida coastline about 100 miles south of Tampa Bay, crossing through the center of the state and exiting near Daytona Beach. For nearly nine hours, the horrific winds tore through the middle of Florida, destroying property and lives in its wake. As night fell, 21 of Florida’s 67 counties were moving from preparation plans to the response and recovery plans. In Tampa, by the early evening, most of the extra fire personnel were released from duty and evacuated fire stations returned to service.

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Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Local units and USAR teams searched damaged and destroyed structures for trapped occupants.
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