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Arcadia Moves On 10 Years After Hurricane Charley

Ten years ago Wednesday, (Aug. 13),  Hurricane Charley swirled its way inland through the quaint DeSoto County town of Arcadia. Sustained winds of a hundred miles an hour ripped down walls and roofs from its historic main street - dealing a major blow to its antiques district. WUSF's Steve Newborn was there in the aftermath, and returned a decade later to see how the town has changed.

Ten years ago, the grind of buzz saws was the sound heard most often in Arcadia

Shop owners, homeowners and just about everyone else cleaned up the mess from Hurricane Charley for months. About 3,600 homes were destroyed or significantly damaged, displacing 16,000 people.

The National Guard patrolled the wrecked streets, enforcing a curfew that lasted for weeks.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
View of Oak Avenue in downtown Arcadia

The storm was a huge blow for a town known for its annual Florida championship rodeo and antique shops. Hardest hit was the central street, Oak Avenue, which today looks like it hasn't changed a bit since the 1920s.

In the center of town is The Old Opera House, an ornate two-story building that's been around since 1906. Charley tore off parts of the roof, pouring three feet of water into what had been converted into an antique mall. I talked to the owner at the time, Daryl McNeil, one month after Charley struck. Over the whirring of drying fans, she was afraid her business wouldn't survive.

"It was horrible when I first saw it. I was in tears I probably cried for a week," McNeil said. "It's been quite a month. We've had a lot of obstacles, and not only getting hit by Charley and losing my roof, the original roof, but also with Frances coming through and taking off my temporary roof, plus the remains of my original roof. Now I'm dealing with the mold, and I should have brought in my lawn mower because it's getting pretty thick on the ceiling."

It took four months for McNeil's business to reopen. She ended up selling the Old Opera House, and all 14 rooms and the main theater got sold again, to Maine native James Crosby.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
The Old Opera House

"It hasn't been changed, though, that's one of the nice things about it," Crosby said. "It's one of the last unrestored theaters of its era."

Crosby ended up selling old squares of tin ceiling that he later found out was part of his original ceiling.

"Actually, the place - other than the roof and the damage from the rain - I'm surprised the place held together as good as it did," Crosby said. "Because a lot of these panes and these windows are no longer held in by any caulking. They just rattle around, and they're all from 1906. I mean you can tell by the waviness of the lead glass that I'm surprised that as many panes remain as still do. I would've figured those would have shattered by now, in any wind."

A block down Oak Avenue, Pam Ames and Linda Williams are spiffing up their new shop, The Peddler's Boutique. Ames recalled battling the storm in their old shop back in 2004.

"I can remember that part of the building across the street went through our window and blew out our back door, and the roof came off," she said. "And we sat there with thousands of dollars worth of inventory wet, and nothing to do with it."

She says it took a long four months to reopen.

"You know, it really is devastating and it makes you appreciate what you do have and lets you know that you're blessed," Ames said. "But you do pull up your bootstraps and keep on going. That's about all you can do."

No one really expected a storm this vicious to come this far inland - after all, Arcadia hadn't seen a direct hit since Hurricane Donna four decades earlier. A wall holding up Payne's Antiques collapsed just off Oak Avenue. The city's water tower lay crumpled along State Road 70. It never got rebuilt.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Current view of repairs after a wall of Payne's Antiques collapsed

Mandy Hines is now the interim county administrator for DeSoto County. Back during Charley, she was in basement of the county courthouse, handling emergency calls. What sticks in her mind is during the height of the storm - she couldn't do a thing to help anyone.

"I think the hardest thing at that point was manning the phones, and hearing people calling and crying for help, that they were trapped in their homes, that the storm was coming and their house was coming apart on them. and there was nothing, you know, nothing we can do," says Hines. "Couldn't send emergency vehicles out because of the winds. We couldn't do anything but advise them to get to the safest place and just talk to them. But that - that was probably the hardest part - hearing the panic in people's voices that chose to stay in their homes."

Then, she heard a wall of the town's lone Red Cross shelter collapsed.

"That was scary, when you hear the building failed, you don't know what that means - the building's collapsed, the building's gone, but thank the Lord, there were no casualties."

Hines' own home got destroyed too, so she ended up sleeping at work for months.

The town has changed in some minor ways, she says. The 100-year-old oaks are all gone. New housing peppers the area, since so many homes were damaged.

But the storm did some good, she says. Strangers helping strangers, an outpouring of help from your neighbors.

"It's a wake-up call for preparedness," Hines says. "And at the end of the day, if the people are safe and your family is safe, it's just stuff. Just stuff."

It's that kind of stuff she hopes to never have to relive.

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