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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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.”

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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.

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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.