Five years later: Hurricane Charley left lessons in its wake
When Hurricane Charley came roaring into southwest Florida, the eye of the storm missed Cape Coral by a mere 20 miles.
While Cape citizens were spared the pure destruction of the storm and its catastrophic aftermath, the fallout from Charley has helped city officials to understand the challenges and how to best approach them next time.
“We had the effects of a category two hurricane hit the city,” said Fire Department Chief Bill Van Helden. “It was a significant event for our community. It was the first time the city of Cape Coral, and our area, had experienced Hurricane force winds since Donna.”
Hurricane Donna happened in 1960, and did nowhere near the damage that Charley brought to the Cape.
Van Helden said that 40 percent of structures in the Cape experienced damage, ranging from severe to minimal.
Some homes had their pool cages ripped apart, while others were deemed unlivable.
That first night following the storm, many homes experienced levels of carbon monoxide poisoning. Van Helden said more people were injured cleaning up their homes in the aftermath than during the event.
“There were numerous calls of people affected, or injured, during clean-up,” he said. “They were cutting tree limbs down, or working in various unsafe places in their homes.”
Along with his duties as fire chief, Van Helden heads up the City’s Emergency Operations Center.
In looking back at the event, Van Helden said he learned that restoration comes first, then reconstruction.
He also said that the city would look to work much more closely with community organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association.
“As emergency management director, it’s my job to coordinate all the different resources, both public and private,” he said. “Next time we have an event like this … we’re going to make sure we’re maximizing the availability for volunteer resources and the private sector. That was a good lesson.”
Crime was not a problem in the storm’s aftermath and the threat level to citizens was minor, according to Police Chief Rob Petrovich.
“There were no major crime issues, at least none that stand out in my mind. One thing we did was implement a curfew … It was helpful. It gave us a tool to work with, to help have better control.”
The Cape police did have some issues with unlicensed and uninsured contractors doing work around the city, but for the most part Petrovich said his officers were more tied up with things like traffic control at intersections without signals.
Looking back over the experience, Petrovich thinks of it in terms of “what you did good and what you could do better,” but cites a few things, including the new public safety building, and improved communication software, that will help aid his department if another event like Hurricane Charley comes booming through the Cape.
“You hate to think about these kinds of things as practice makes perfect, but sometimes it does,” he said. “Afterwards you look over what you did right, and what you did wrong, not only as a police department but as a city as a whole. We came at it very well, and I think we did a good job.”
Both men praised the community, and how the community was able to work with their respective departments to ensure a safe, and smooth recovery.
Yet, both also stress preparedness, and to heed the official warnings and to make sure their families are ready to weather not only the storm, but the aftermath.
“Clearly people were unprepared,” Van Helden said. “People can’t think it won’t happen to them.”