SEBRING — As we watched the television weather reports tracking Hurricane Charley’s path on a Friday afternoon and evening 10 years ago, we were witnesses to the beginning of a hurricane season that would hit home not once, not twice, but three times.
Forecast to hit the Tampa Bay area on Aug. 13, Charley made a surprise “wobble” to the northeast. Soon the storm knocked the power out in Highlands County and we didn’t need the TV to tell us where it was headed.
It was here — knocking down trees, ripping off roofs and causing $25 million in damages in Highlands County alone.
Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne followed to drive home the point in 2004 that Florida’s Heartland is not a safe haven in the hurricane season.
Sebring Police Chief Tom Dettman said he had been told that there hadn’t been a hurricane in the area since Hurricane Donna in 1960 and this was considered to be the “safe zone” because the retired director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami (Bob Sheets) actually relocated to Lake Placid.
“So after serving for 25 years over on the east coast in Palm Beach County as a policeman and living there for 40 years, I thought to myself ‘this is great’ because I have been through a ton of storms and events over on the east coast and nothing ever seemed to affect this area of Central Florida,” he said.
As the police chief of Sebring, Dettman said he felt confident that he didn’t have to worry about hurricanes, until 2004.
The 2004 hurricanes occurred before the renovation of the police headquarters, he noted. The windows were boarded up, but Hurricane Charley’s winds blew off about half the boards and broke many windows.
“We had some water intrusion; it was quite a battle just to keep our public safety building intact not to mention taking care of the general public at the same time,” Dettman said.
During the storms, officers were strategically stationed at different locations, such as Highlands Regional Medical Center and Walmart, in the event that the roads became impassable near the police station, he said.
“Those three events really and truly opened our eyes to strategically planning the renovation of this building,” Dettman said of the police station.
Avon Park Fire Department Lt. Robert Remick remembers the department responding to a fire during Hurricane Charley at a convenience store on West Main Street just west of Big T Tire.
Due to the storm, the entire depart was on standby at the fire station so they were able to quickly get about 18 to 20 firefighters on the scene, he said.
“It was good because we protected Big T because it was starting to catch,” Remick said.
The convenience store burned down, but Remick explained that live power lines were falling on the ground so they couldn’t get onto the property to fight the fire. From the highway they tried to use their fire hoses, but it was to no avail due to the storm winds.
“By the time the power was cut, basically all we could do was protect Big T,” he said. It was dark and very windy.
Remick remembers the power being out for almost a week after Charley.
“It was eye opening what we take for granted with the power and the water and just comfort and air conditioning, gas,” he said.
At the time they had a “tiny” electrical generator that only powered a few things in the fire station, Remick said. Now they have a larger generator that can power the entire station.
Highlands Emergency Operations Director Tim Eures said he never experienced anything of the magnitude of the 2004 hurricane season, “especially to have one make almost a direct hit and then a second and a third.”
He said it was fortunate that in 2000 the EOC moved out of a “1960 Cuban Missile Crisis bomb shelter” near Lake Jackson, which was only about 2,500 square feet and prone to flooding. The new EOC was designed to withstand 200 mph winds and featured the latest communications technology and was equipped with backup generators.
“If this had come about five years before we would have really been challenged to handle this,” Eures said.
They had redundancy in their internet, telephone and cellphone systems, but the communication companies’ towers and systems were affected by the storms, he said.
At the time the EOC had one satellite phone, Eures said, so he and Emergency Management Coordinator Ben Henley would get into then Emergency Management Director’s Bill Nichols’ truck and all three would use the satellite phone to provide updates to the state.
“As bad as this was, on the other hand the positive was neighbors got together, families got back together, people making connections again and really pitching in to help everybody,” he said.
A look back at the storm’s toll
The three hurricanes caused a total $481 million in damages in Highlands County, destroyed 146 residences and damaged another 2,067 residences, according to the Highlands County Emergency Operations.
Hurricane Jeanne cause the greatest damage totaling $452 million with 140 residences destroyed and 2,000 damaged.
A summary of the storms’ affects from the Highlands County EOC follows:
The National Hurricane Center had predicted the center of Hurricane Charley would make landfall near Tampa Bay as a category 3 hurricane, but the storm turned unexpectedly to the northeast and made landfall near Cayo Costa, near Cape Coral, around 3:45 p.m. Aug. 13, as a category 4 storm with maximum sustained surface winds near 150 mph. The fast moving (25 mph) storm’s center passed just west of Wauchula.
Power was out in Highlands County for three days and out up to seven to 10 days in some areas.
Phone service was out county wide for three days.
Internet access was down for three days.
The special needs shelter was damaged and patients evacuated to Agri-Civic Center.
Three distribution points were set up for food, water, ice and supplies.
Schools were closed for the week due to power outages and damage.
The center of Frances’ nearly 80-mile wide diameter eye crossed the Florida coast near Sewalls Point, near Stuart, at 1 a.m. , Sept. 5. The center of the storm passed over the northeast corner of Highlands County.
The special needs shelter had its largest turnout ever (104) in Highlands County.
The general shelters has its largest turn-out ever (1,200).
One distribution point was set up for food, water, ice and supplies.
With a 50-mile wide diameter eye, Jeanne made landfall at the southern end of Hutchinson Island just east of Stuart on Sept. 26. The storm moved across the northeast corner of Highlands County.
Hurricane Jeanne is considered to be the worst natural disaster in Highlands County history.
Winds clocked in at 100 mph at the Highlands County Emergency Operations Center.
Six distribution locations were set up for food, water, ice and supplies.
112,678 gallons of water, 645,026 pounds of ice and 262,656 MRE’s (meals ready to eat) were distributed.
Power was out for up to 10 days.
Phones were out up to four days.
Schools were closed for three days.
The blue roof program operating from two locations installed 3,180 tarps and gave out 7,500 tarps to individuals.
Editor’s note: Online readers, be sure to pick up a copy of Sunday’s Highlands Today edition. Inside you will find a four-page pullout observing the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 hurricane season, which will have this story, photos and reader memories. The Highlands Today print edition can be found in various newspaper boxes throughout Highlands County and at our office, 315 U.S. 27 N., in Sebring. The office is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.