Hurricane Charley ripped into Florida's gulf coast Friday afternoon, carrying sustained winds of 145 mph, spawning tornadoes and leaving behind a storm surge that threatened to swamp low-lying beach communities and harbor towns.
The Category 4 storm, the most powerful to strike Florida since Andrew in 1992, sent about a million coastal residents fleeing for higher ground and left more than 500,000 without power.
Charley was still so powerful late Friday that emergency officials said it could emerge on the east side of Florida still packing hurricane or tropical storm-force winds. At that point, it could rejuvenate itself over the Atlantic -- hurricanes get much of their energy from the sea -- and begin stalking South Carolina, North Carolina and the northern seaboard.
The storm left a 15-mile swath of wreckage and ruins where it made landfall in southwestern Florida at the mouth of the Peace River.
On the river's southern bank, the bayside town of Punta Gorda was one of the first to absorb the storm's might. Here, the roof of an emergency operations center blew off and several other buildings, including a pizzeria and a hardware store, were reduced to piles of rubble. Downed electric cables snaked across roads, traffic signs were flattened, billboards were pounded into kindling and the storm tore off the roofs and blew in the windows at an entire row of car dealerships.
In Port Charlotte on the river's north shore, traffic lights were torn from their cables. And a roof and a storefront were blown off an Auto Zone store, leaving auto batteries and other wares displayed. A window was blown in at Eye Glass World and boats in a boatyard were thrown around like bathtub toys.
Area officials, who were only beginning to investigate the scope of the damage, feared that some coastal areas were under 20 feet of water, and widespread flooding was anticipated.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush estimated that damage from Charley could exceed $15 billion, and his brother, President Bush, declared the state a federal disaster area, a move that expedites the arrival of emergency assistance.
By 9:30 p.m. EDT, the eye of the storm was over downtown Orlando. Winds continued to gust to about 115 mph, though they were dropping rapidly, said Allen Moore, a spokesman at the Orange County emergency operations center. Orange County includes the Orlando metropolitan area.
Three deaths reports
Three people were reported dead in Florida.
A crash on Interstate 75 in Sarasota County killed one person, and a wind gust caused a truck to collide with a car in Orange County, killing a young girl. A man who stepped outside his house to smoke a cigarette died when a banyon tree fell on him in Fort Myers, authorities said.
"It was awful," said Donna Ackerman, 61, who rode out the storm in a closet with her granddaughters in Cape Coral, next to Fort Myers. The windows of a Cape Coral hospital imploded and a fire station's roof was torn off.
"I never want to experience this again," Ackerman said. "We thank God that we're still here." After pummeling Cuba, where three people were killed, Charley appeared to be headed early Friday for Tampa Bay, the most densely populated region of Florida's gulf coast. But the storm took a lumbering turn to the east shortly after noon, strengthening into a Category 4 hurricane. Category 5 is the highest; a Category 4 classification is reserved for storms with sustained winds of between 131 and 155 mph. An Air Force reconnaissance plane measured one gust of 162 mph.
Charley made landfall at 3:45 p.m. EDT at North Captiva Island, a ribbon of silken sand in the Gulf of Mexico west of Fort Myers and more than 100 miles south of Tampa. The storm then moved up the gullet of Charlotte Harbor, a normally tranquil bay north of Fort Myers surrounded by dozens of waterfront communities, most of which seemed shocked to find themselves in the eye of the storm. Some decided at the last minute to evacuate, then found it was too late.
"It reaches the point that you cannot change your plan. You just have to go with it and you cannot leave," said Jim Stevens, who stayed behind in Charlotte Park, a canal-lined community on the east shore of Charlotte Harbor with his wife, an 85-year-old relative and a friend.
"I'm not afraid, but nervous," he said as the storm rolled in. "We have a room that's kind of on the interior and we have some chairs and pillows. So if the wind does cause any damage we can go in there and protect ourselves." Reached by telephone after the storm, Stevens' wife, Fran, said the family's safe room was suddenly exposed when Charley tore off part of the roof.
"So we ended up in the kitchen, all huddled, the four of us," she said. "We just stayed on the floor and it blew one of our storm shutters off. We put a table against the garage door so it wouldn't blow in and we backed the car up against the table. That's what saved the garage door." Some of those who decided to hunker down for the hurricane seemed to believe that their fate was in nature's hands.
"I've made my bed in the closet," Louise Coffey, owner of the Coffey House Bed & Breakfast in Port Charlotte, said as the storm came ashore. "The bathtub is full of water, for flushing the commode. I've unplugged everything, turned off the computer. There's no feeling to it, you just do what you've got to do. This is the biggest threat we've had here."
At Cape Coral High School, which had been turned into a public shelter, nearly 5,000 people stood "shoulder to shoulder" as the storm passed, said Gordon "Booch" DeMarchi, a spokesman at the Lee County emergency operations center. Public shelters are often the last places of refuge to fill up during major storms. Many residents, it appeared, failed to heed official warnings leading up to the storm, DeMarchi said.
While many storms weaken rapidly after making landfall, Charley was not done after blowing through Charlotte Harbor. The hurricane continued on across the interior of Florida toward Orlando, where theme parks were shuttered and tourists were told not to leave their hotel rooms. An estimated 6.5 million of the state's 17 million residents were in the path of the storm.