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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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.

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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.

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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.