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 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.”