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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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.