Over the course of a career in journalism that spans three decades few events measure up to what I helped cover five years ago today. Hurricane Charley slammed into Southwest Florida the afternoon of Friday August 13, 2004 gouging a path across Sanibel and Captiva Islands before roaring up the Peace River bringing devastation to Pine Island, Cape Coral and much of Charlotte County. It was certainly one of the most exhausting experiences of my professional career, rivaled only by the collapse of the skywalks at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City 28 years ago.
What sticks out in my mind is a decision I had reached the night before as my head hit the pillow. Our news director John Emmert had decided to send out satellite truck and reporter Mike Walcher to the Tampa Bay area. All indications were that Charley was going to hit there sometime on Friday. But laying in bed I was beginning to have serious doubts about John's decision.
First thing Friday morning, which started well before 7 a.m. I told John that we needed to bring Mike closer to home and suggested that Charlotte County would be the ideal location. Fortunately, he agreed with me. By mid-morning it became increasingly clear that something was amiss with this hurricane. It had started to wobble. It made my guts churn.
By noon it seemed to me that Charley was going to slam into an area between Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach and cross an area just south of the Caloosahatchee River. I was scared shitless. The sense of dread in the newsroom was palpable. Sometime early in the afternoon Emmert called the staff together offering those who wished to leave a chance to escape before the storms full wrath had reached us. This was one frightened bunch but everyone hung together.
WINK TV sat right next to the Caloosahatchee so any storm surge could have left us several feet under water. By 3 p.m. I can honestly say I have never been as scared of anything as I was of that storm. Walcher and our satellite truck was in the midst of it taking refuge at the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. We were scrambling in the newsroom making it up on the fly, desperately trying to get some live reporting on the air even though power was out in the area and the only audience was by radio or folks with battery or generator powered TV's.
Once the storm hit my anxiety level dropped tremendously. It was a big blow to be sure but it wasn't as frightening as it could have been. The worst of it had passed to our north. Mike Walcher and his photographer and Dan Bowens and his photographer experienced the worst of it as they were both located in Charlotte County. Both did wonderful work as did all of our other reporters out in the field who risked their lives to report on the storm... Trey Radel, Tim Wetzel, Melissa Keeney, Holly Wagner, Abigail Bleck, Candace Rotolo, and Judd Cribbs all stand out in my mind from that frantic day. We had a dedicated group of photographers like Darren Whitehead, Randy Hansen, Matt Lucht, Melissa Martz, Sean Peden, Tom Urban, Mike Levine, Andrew Miller and a couple of other guys whose names escape me. Even the sports guys, Brian Simon and Clayton Ferraro pitched in.
The next three days were a blur. We got very little rest and we did our best to bring this life shattering event to the viewers of Southwest Florida. It was the beginning of a nerve wracking hurricane season as we suffered glancing blows from Hurricanes Frances and Jeannie as well. I've never seen a group of reporters, photographers, anchors, and producers so worn out in the space of six weeks. It was an unforgettable time and one I hope none of us ever has to experience again.