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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“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.

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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.