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Disaster of Hurricane Charley brought out the best in people

By Staff | Aug 12, 2009

If you take a look at the archived editions of the Island Reporter, you might notice that the front page of our Aug. 12, 2004 issue was filled with stories covering the City Council deferring their vote on the Sanibel Bridge lawsuit, Lee County Commissioners approving a hike in the causeway toll, students preparing to go back to school and Porter Goss’ nomination for Director of the CIA.

However, the following week’s edition was dedicated almost exclusively to a single subject: Hurricane Charley.

“Sanibel residents began returning to the island Wednesday following the wrath of Hurricane Charley and after enduring six days of uncertainty not knowing about their homes,” the first paragraph of our lead story – “Goodbye Charley” – read, in an issue that was packed with first-hand accounts of the storm, re-entry information for residents, damage assessments, insurance company phone numbers and photographs documenting how the islands picked up the pieces after being devastated by the Category 4 natural disaster.

And here we are, five years later, still talking about that fateful Friday the 13th.

“What I’ll remember most is that everybody came together – the feds, the state and local officials, ‘Ding’ Darling and police – working towards a common cause,” said Marty Harrity, who was serving as Sanibel’s mayor during Hurricane Charley. “We weren’t going to let anybody return to the island until we were sure that it was 100 percent safe.”

In the Island Reporter’s commemorative photo book, “2004: The Year Of The Hurricanes,” executive editor Renny Severance wrote, “The response to the disaster was remarkable – help came from all over the country in the form of volunteers, ice, water, food, batteries and more. Human beings were at their very best – helping each other without a thought for themselves – as residents began to make their way back five days later to an island covered with downed trees and power lines.”

Vice Mayor Kevin Ruane, who at the time Charley struck had been a Sanibel resident for 14 days, recalled what he remembered most about the period.

“It was the feeling of a small town that everybody wanted to get involved,” he said. “That was a very dark moment, but people rallied together as a group.”

Ruane also recalled volunteering himself to assist with the recovery effort, something that – prior to the 9/11 disaster several years earlier – he had not done on a regular basis.

“Frankly, I wonder if I would be here today, doing what I do, if that event hadn’t occurred,” he added.

On Monday, Sanibel City Manager Judie Zimomra poured over some of the data related to Hurricane Charley: The total recovery cost came in at $12.754 million. Of that amount, $5.375 million was spent on debris removal alone.

“We made our first priority safety and our second priority cleaning up,” she said. “They say that the real test of a community’s ability to recover from a disaster is how viable that community is after five years. For us, the answer is yes. We have fully recovered. So I say how a community comes together when something like that happens is the real test.”

Zimomra also stated that the hurricane plan the city had in place served the island well then, and that the current plan for disaster preparation – which has been fine tuned and adjusted with each passing storm season since Charley – has won several awards and is recognized by the National Weather Service.

“I think that I’ll remember how proud I was of our citizens and how the city really met the challenge,” said Jim Jennings, a council member then and now. “This city has written the book on hurricane recovery.”

Although five years is a long time in some people’s estimation, the wounds left by Charley appear to have healed… but they are still visible. Not resting on its laurels, Sanibel still promotes storm awareness and preparation. The next hurricane seminar is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. at BIG Arts, located at 900 Dunlop Road. It is free and open to the public. For additional information, visit www.mysanibel.com or call City Hall at 472-3700.

“My happiest moment after Charley was standing on the causeway, welcoming people back to the island,” added Harrity. “I took a little grief for keeping folks off the island for five days, but our main concern was for their safety. I’m glad that now we’re enjoying the same Sanibel we all know and love.”