First Report: Hurricane Season 2004

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.

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.

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

The Tampa Bay region was relatively unscathed by the storm. Within minutes after Charley made landfall, Bay Area emergency planners were on the telephone with the State of Florida Emergency Operations Center determining what resources were needed in the storm-struck areas. The first thing requested to the battered areas was emergency personnel to conduct heavy search and rescue efforts. The teams were needed to scour some of the severely damaged buildings, large and small, to determine if anyone had been trapped. The Tampa Bay Regional Urban Search and Rescue team, designated as Florida Task Force 3 (FL TF3), was activated. The task force is a combined team of emergency personnel from the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County fire rescues.

The idea for a multi-jurisdictional USAR began in 1995. Over the years, while each community has experienced local emergencies that required some of the equipment and expertise acquired by the team, this was its first full deployment. FL TF3 was being sent to the small city of Punta Gorda, which lies along the Gulf of Mexico in Charlotte County and took a near direct strike from the pounding winds and rains of Hurricane Charley.

The initial response team from FL TF3 would have 42 members, 14 personnel from each of the participating departments. Tampa Fire Rescue Special Operations Chief David Mankowski said, “Team members for deployment are chosen by the training and level of expertise. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a model on how team positions are filled.” Team member positions include rescue managers, rescue squad officers, search and rescue specialists, including the canine teams, logistics and medical specialists.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Local marinas and waterways took a terrific hit from the hurricane.

Early that evening, an advance team from FL TF3 left for Charlotte County. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Special Operations Chief Ron Rogers, Captain Clint Roberts and Structural Engineer Bill Bracken left Tampa and drove to Punta Gorda to set up communications with local emergency officials.

“FL TF3’s mission from the State of Florida was to search the multi-story concrete reinforced condominium that had suffered partial or complete collapse,” Rogers said. “The advance team was also heading toward the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center, which the state felt was lost in the storm.”

As the hurricane was blowing through Charlotte, Emergency Operations Manager Wayne Sallade was on the telephone with the State Emergency Operations Center. Suddenly, Sallade stated, “There goes our roof,” and the phone went dead. Unable to regain contact with Charlotte, the state was justifiably concerned that the entire EOC staff was trapped in the building. Eventually, contact was reestablished with Charlotte EOC. The building was badly damaged, but the 62 people who had been inside were all right.

When the FL TF3 advance team arrived in Punta Gorda, the members met with Charlotte County Fire Rescue Special Operations Chief Verne Riggall. Only about a week earlier, Rogers, Riggall and Roberts had been together at a Florida State Fire Marshals’ meeting. They were briefing the attendees on the importance of USAR within Florida and the status of the teams.

Looking back at those first few minutes after arriving in Punta Gorda, Roberts recalled, “There were rescue cars and ambulances lined up as far as the eye could see.” Local hospitals had not gone unscathed by the storm’s fury, with windows shattered and roofs torn away. Hundreds of patients had to be evacuated. The patients were being transported from the damaged hospitals to a strip mall that had been set up as a triage staging area. From the staging area, patients were sent to hospitals that were not in the storm’s wake. Some of the more seriously ill patients were transported by helicopters to hospitals over 100 miles away.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Damage is visible to the apparatus doors of Punta Gorda Fire Department Station 1. The missing door from the apparatus bay on the left was found lying on the grass in front of the station.

The remainder of the FL TF3 team with its trucks and equipment arrived in Punta Gorda shortly after midnight. The team found a community in total darkness. The lack of electricity was probably a benefit, as most of the aboveground utility poles were down, many of them snapped like twigs. Power lines were strewn about the ground everywhere. The local emergency services had done the best they could in the preceding hours to get out into the community and search for victims trapped in collapsed structures. They were hampered in their response to the community by several factors. According to Punta Gorda Assistant Fire Chief Matt Free, “Before we could respond to the community we first had to cut the fire station garage doors away from our trucks.” The storm had badly damaged the fire station. Even after the doors were open, Free spoke of other obstructions in the roadways such as, “trees, power lines, parts of houses and overturned cars.”

Free said he was glad that his department had been proactive in stressing the need to evacuate certain areas of his community. In the few hours before the storm turned and made landfall, Free said, his crews went, “door to door” assuring that everyone in the evacuation area had moved to safe refuge. This effort is one of the reasons that the death toll directly related to the storm in Charlotte County was limited to about four people. During the worst of the storm, when the winds were tearing the roof off parts of the building and crashing in the bay doors, Free and his personnel took shelter inside of solid interior rooms of the Public Safety Building.

The local responders in Punta Gorda had done a cursory search for victims in areas where of light structures had been damaged. They were not equipped to “clear” larger buildings that had major structural collapse. Members of FL TF3, in addition to their training, brought in high-tech gear. Night-vision goggles, infrared devices, listening devices and search robots aided the teams.

FL TF3 decided to set up a base of operations in a large parking area near several heavily damaged hotels and condominiums along Charlotte Harbor. The site was chosen for its location along the main highway and, according to Tampa Fire Rescue District Chief Scott Ehlers, “It was as far as we could go due to the road being blocked by debris.” A few of the team members began to set up tents and other equipment necessary to sustain the USAR efforts. “Even at that late hour, in the total pitch darkness, we decided it was best to search the nearby damaged buildings to assure they were clear,” Ehlers said. “We essentially hit the ground running.”

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
USAR team members operated with special equipment and left markings on each building after it was searched for occupants.

Clearing the nearby buildings was a relatively straightforward process, and no trapped occupants were found. The surrounding neighborhood was another story, though. Driver Engineer Chris Stark of Tampa Fire Rescue said, “Downed power lines, some still attached to their poles, large trees, large sections of shredded homes and total darkness made our progress through the neighborhood a fairly treacherous proposition. Available lighting was limited to hand and helmet-mounted lights. Both types of lights provided very good directional visibility, but the area of illumination was limited to narrow beams cutting a relatively small hole through the darkness.” Rogers called the darkness of the night, “disorienting” and “the most shocking part” of their arrival in Punta Gorda. The team worked until about 5:30 on Saturday morning, Aug. 14. They broke for a short nap and readied for another day of work.

FL TF3 was joined by the Bradenton, FL, Heavy Rescue team. The large USAR team was divided into squads. At first, the search squads were set up with all the members being from one department; in other words, all the Tampa rescuers worked together, all the St. Petersburg rescuers worked together, etc. After beginning the operation, however, it was decided the overall effort would be more efficient if the squads combined departmental members. Mixing the personnel gave the team more flexibility and efficiency. Roberts noted, “There were rescuers from four separate departments. Once they started to work, they worked together great.”

Tampa Bay was not the only USAR team in the Charlotte County area. Florida Tasks Forces 1 and 2 from the Miami and Dade County areas along with Tennessee Task Force 1 were also in Punta Gorda. Roberts of FL TF3 said, “We established a unified command and the teams worked very well together.” Ehlers added, “Our job was to go into the community and assist as best we could without duplicating effort. To do this we created geographical boundaries for each squad to work in.” With the city divided into grids, the various USAR teams coordinated their efforts and searched large and small buildings looking for persons who did not evacuate before the storm and became trapped in destroyed structures.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Charlotte County Fire Station 12 was missing its roof and apparatus bay doors following the hurricane.

For Roger Picard, a paramedic/firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue and a member of FL TF3, this was the second deployment to an area of unbelievable destruction. In September 2001, Picard and his search and rescue canine Jessie along with a Federal Emergency Management USAR team responded to the World Trade Center disaster. The canine search team spent a week of 12-hour shifts searching the tower site and nearby buildings.

After three days of working with the search effort in Punta Gorda, Picard reflected on the two experiences, saying, “The World Trade Center collapse affected a large area, but the devastation from this storm just seems to go on and on for miles, what seems like hundreds of miles.” Picard, who lived in California before moving to Florida, has experienced earthquakes and other disasters. He related, “You can plan, but you’ll never be fully prepared for something this tremendous.”

Some of the larger buildings cleared by FL TF3 were a Best Western hotel, several multi-story condominiums that were damaged and several partially collapsed downtown commercial buildings.

Charlotte County has a large number of senior citizens. Quite a few of them are spending their retirement years enjoying the company of other retirees in expansive mobile and manufactured home communities. A significant amount of time was spent going from home to home in these communities. Some of these homes did get through the storm with minimal damage such as broken windows and battered exteriors. Other manufactured homes were torn from their foundations and thrown many feet, leaving nothing but a trail of debris. The squads checked inside whatever was left of each home. The squads marked each searched building with a rescue “X” to document the property was searched. The “X” shows who searched and when, any findings and any special hazards found. When they finished with a community, the squads also marked the street to let others know the search was completed.

FL TF3 did not find any trapped victims. During the door-to-door searches, the members did find some people still “living” in a heavily damaged low-rise condominium building. There was no electricity; no running water and the structure was not stable. The rescuers had to become social workers, convincing the scared and confused survivors that it was unsafe to stay in what just a short time ago had been their homes. The rescuers had to assure the residents that staying there was not an option and they needed to go to the relief centers and get some help.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
A search team member with dog pause after checking a damaged structure for occupants.

Captain John Adams of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue was the Planning Officer for the search and rescue base of operations. Upon arriving in Punta Gorda, he identified several items that he needed to work on procuring: ice, food and water. He related how the task force arrived in Punta Gorda with, “72 hours of food and water, but no ice. And with the heat index going to 110 degrees each day, the rescuers needed cool fluids.”

In addition to working on obtaining ice, he wanted to upgrade the food source that was available to the searchers. The task force takes “heater meals” when it is deployed. The heater meals are a dehydrated serving of food in a bag. “You pour hot water over a chemical pouch and place it all in a cardboard box,” one team member explained. The chemical reaction makes steam to heat the food.

Late Saturday, nearing the end of the first 24 hours of deployment, the ice began arriving. By the second day of deployment, connections were made with the Salvation Army to begin a feeding service for the rescuers at the USAR base camp. By Monday evening, local restaurants began providing food services to the USAR base of operations.

As the searchers worked their way through the communities devastated by the storm, they kept coming across civilians who could be categorized as “walking wounded.” The civilians presented themselves with myriad medical problems such as lacerations, infections and occasionally chest pain. If the search squads were slowed down too much or stayed and helped the wounded, their mission of search and rescue would be compromised. Adams made contact with Riggall. To assure that the injured and ill civilians got the help they needed, a direct line of communications was set up between the task forces and Charlotte EMS. When search squads encountered someone who needed EMS help, they could summon the aid quickly.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Members of IAFF Local 2546 who remained on duty during Hurricane Charley made a statement.

The heat and humidity were tough on the civilians who had limited shelter, no electricity and no communications. Relief centers were set up by agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, but the civilians did not know where to go to get life’s basic needs, food and water. Civilians in search of drinking water saw the USAR base camp and stopped to seek help.

“As a humanitarian gesture, each civilian that asked for water was given some from the task force’s supply,” Adams said. “We then gave them directions on where to go for further assistance.” The task force had 10,000 gallons of bottled water on order. Adams had unintentionally ordered more water than the task forces could use. “I kept requesting water from different sources because no one could assure that it was on the way. The water we needed ended up getting ordered three times.”

Bottled water finally began arriving Saturday evening. On Sunday morning, Adams walked to a relief station that was a half mile down the road. He found one of the volunteers working at the center and asked about drinking water. Adams said, “You could see the despair in his eyes because he thought I was there to ask for water.” The volunteer relief worker gestured to the back of a tent at a small pile of bottled water saying, “That’s all I got, a case and a half.” “Then I guess you could use a couple of semi’s full,” said Adams smiling. “Praise the Lord!” was the reply.

Adams said he is proud of the humanitarian aid the task force was able to render. “We took care of their (the civilians) immediate needs and then we showed them where to get help in the future.”

Some of the experiences during the search efforts were surreal for veteran rescuers. Stark related how after a while, “Walking on downed power lines became a norm. And some of these were the big transmission lines. This went against the most basic of safety procedures that I have ingrained into myself.” But with streets and sidewalks littered with miles of downed lines, it would be days before the mess was cleared and energy restored.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
Firefighters spray-painted a message on plywood outside the damaged fire station shown on the previous page.

After a few days of searching, members of FL TF3 were directed to a storage trailer where concerned residents said several cats and kittens were trapped. The storage trailer was forced open and a sick cat was found inside. The rescuers took the cat to a mobile veterinary clinic that had been set up in the area. After an evaluation and a couple of days of medical care, the cat was ruled healthy, but there was no owner to claim the animal. Paramedic Brian Smithey, a member of the Tampa canine search team, decided to adopt the cat for his mother.

Roberts said, “I was especially proud of the extra efforts that team members made. A lot of the guys, on what should have been their down time, kept giving and kept helping.” The rescuers ended up walking every mile of the city and outlying areas. During their work hours, they saw families who had lost everything and were in need of aid. Then when the rescuers were off-duty some took vehicles that were not being used in the search effort and delivered items such as water, food and baby supplies to those in need. Other off-duty team members went to one of the local hospitals and helped to get the generators running.

The initial team of FL TF3 members arrived in Punta Gorda late night Friday, Aug. 13. The evening of Monday, Aug. 16, a relief crew arrived and the initial team went home. The second team was relieved by a third team a few days later. The USAR operations were demobilized on Monday, Aug. 23, a week and a half after the storm struck.

Hurricane Charley was the first full deployment for the Tampa Bay Regional USAR team, Florida Task Force 3. According to Ehlers, the team learned about “things to do, items to bring, other equipment and vehicles that would have been helpful.” He also said, “This type of learning could have only come with experience, actually being there. Pictures in the newspaper, on the Internet and on television cannot fully prepare you for what you encounter at this type of event.”

Lieutenant Todd Livingston of St Petersburg Fire Rescue noted that, “The task force (FL TF3) came together better than at any training session.” Livingston credited regular briefings at the beginning and end of every work shift as very important. The large numbers of personnel working over wide geographical areas made the meetings indispensable. Livingston continued, “Everyone was kept informed; the rescue specialists were as informed as the task force leaders. They knew why they were doing something at any particular moment.” The briefings were used to explain to the squads getting ready to go to work their objectives for the shift. The briefings also covered the challenges and accomplishments of the off-going work shift. This open line of communications kept the entire task force more alert, focused and productive.

Photo by Captain Bill Wade
A large portion of a roof collapsed onto numerous cars at a severely damaged property.

Ehlers spoke of the need to set up communications with the home department. Upon arriving in Punta Gorda, all typical communications were down, specifically telephone landlines and cell phone towers. For the first two days, the only link with the outside world was the one satellite telephone the team members had brought in with them. Ehlers noted, “This communication link is necessary to let the home department know what is going on, what the needs might be and send or receive emergency messages.”

The members of FL TF3 knew they would have to be self sufficient on deployment. As the storm moved through Florida, county after county began calling for aid. Food and water had to be available. Hygiene stations had to be set up. Resources at the state level were strained quickly. Additional resources had to be dispatched from far away and took some time to arrive.

Another issue that FL TF3 members noted they could improve upon is logistics. According to Livingston, “We needed to do better tracking how equipment was checked out and returned.” Knowing where certain tools and equipment was and making sure it got put back ready for future use was a challenge.

One other issue that rescuers had to face was humanitarian aid for the fire and EMS personnel who lived in Charlotte County. At least seven fire stations were heavily damaged; Charlotte Station 12 probably sustained the worst damage. As fire crews sat inside the dorm area waiting out the storm, they heard a rush of wind and a loud crashing sound. The firefighters looked onto the apparatus floor to see the garage doors blown in and wrapped around the fronts of their trucks. The entire roof area over the six-bay apparatus floor was missing. Station 12 backs up to Interstate 75. After the storm passed, firefighters found their roof in a field about 150 yards away on the other side of the four-lane interstate.

At least seven area firefighters lost their homes and everything they owned. An estimated 50 had varying types of damage to their homes. FL TF3 Captain Morris Costello said, “The Tampa Bay Regional USAR team and all the other teams in Punta Gorda ‘passed the hat’ amongst themselves and collected $1,700.” This cash was given to Free to aid his personnel as they saw fit.

Roberts said of the Charlotte County firefighters, “They were remarkable. Immediately following the storm, some had no idea where their families were, but they kept doing their duty. Some others had their families in the fire station with them when the storm struck, thinking it was a safe place, and now their families are living in cars outside the fire stations because their homes and their stations were damaged, but they kept doing their duty.”

Within days of the storm passing, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) set up a firefighter relief center in an abandoned home improvement store. Firefighter unions and benevolence associations from throughout the state brought in building supplies, electrical generators, tools, volunteer labor and cash to help the firefighters who had personal property damage from the storm. Back home, Tampa firefighters and paramedics spent over $5,000 at a local home improvement store and delivered the two trailer loads of supplies so that the Charlotte firefighters could begin “drying-in” their homes. This would allow the homes to be protected from further damage while insurance companies processed their claims.

The Charlotte County area and the other 20 Florida counties struck by Hurricane Charley have all made great strides in the recovery effort. Some communities were back to near normalcy within a few hours, others will take longer to heal. When asked what lessons the members of Tampa Bay Regional Urban Search and Rescue team had learned from this experience, Roberts stated, “There is no way that our Tampa Bay community could ever be ready for a storm as strong as this, and we are foolish to think we are.” But Roberts would agree failing to prepare is even more foolish.

Bill Wade has been involved with the fire and EMS services since 1973. He has been with Tampa, FL, Fire Rescue since 1981, where he has served as a firefighter, paramedic, tactical medic, hazardous material technician and is currently a captain assigned as the department’s public information officer. He serves as part-time faculty with the Hillsborough Community College EMS program. Wade has a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of South Florida.