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Emergency Director Recalls Hurricane Charley

Many in the Tampa Bay area braced for what they thought would be a direct hit from Hurricane Charley ten years ago. But, the category 4 storm took a right turn and made a direct hit on Punta Gorda, Friday, August 13, 2004 at about 4:45 p.m. at least that’s when the town clock stopped according to Wayne Sallade, director of emergency operations for Charlotte County.

Back then, Sallade had 17 years of experience on the job, but nothing can really prepare one for the kind of destruction that Charley wrought.

Local, national and international news media descended on the small county dominated by senior citizens, many living in mobile or manufactured homes which were extremely vulnerable to hurricane winds.

Two days after Charley pounded the coastal community, rescue teams were still searching rubble for survivors and fatalities amid the 11,000 destroyed homes. And there were hundreds of calls to law enforcement from distant relatives who couldn't reach their relatives.

Sallade was intense of his press briefing that Sunday having been asked continually about the death toll.

“Yes, there are fatalities. Yes there are people in those refrigerated trucks at the temporary morgue. But we’re not prepared to say how many and you’re not going to couch me into saying it, goad me into saying it, because frankly I at this point am not sure that I know the accurate number,” Sallade said during his media briefing, August 15, 2004.

Sallade had been quoted in a newspaper that he feared once the cadaver dogs went through the debris they’d find scores dead.

Sallade still heads up Charlotte County emergency operations.

“I vividly remember the press hammering me about the death count,” Sallade recalled in August 2014. “From the initial press conference I did very, very, early Saturday, nothing was asked more than death count, death count, body count, body count. We’re hearing bodies are stacked like cordwood you know.”

The misunderstanding, he said, arose when state emergency officials called about fatalities in 2004. Sallade was cautious and ordered two portable mortuaries, 18-wheel refrigerated trucks that can hold up to 30 bodies.

It ended up they weren’t needed because there were only four initial fatalities.

There would be 10 more secondary deaths related to Charley in the coming weeks – people falling off roofs, traffic accidents because people were out past curfew with no street lights.

It would take 13 days to restore power to 97,000 customers Sallade said.

Just two hours before Charley hit, Sallade was operating out of their headquarters, a former electronics factory, a steel building across from the airport.

Then he received a phone call from Max Mayfield, the former director of the Hurricane Center.

“I wasn’t real happy with the hurricane center anyway the track had changed the intensity had really changed and I’ll admit I was a bit put off. I said what do you want?” Sallade recalled. “(Mayfield) He said you answered my question. You’re still in that giant “Ted shed” of yours and he said I guess this will be the last time that we talk. 201 and I’m thinking where’s max going it dawned on me I wasn’t going to be here much longer if I stayed in that room.”

Sallade and the rest of his team moved to a secondary location.

“I’m glad I did because about an hour later 20,000 square feet of the roof was peeled off of the building,” Sallade said.

Charley’s fast pace, 22 miles per hour, was unlike most hurricanes which average 5 to 7 mph.

It was still daylight when Sallade emerged Friday evening.

“I stepped outside and the building we were in was the only one of 10 at the airport that survived. Every other building was severely compromised or flattened,” Sallade said.

His first move was to call his mentor, the director of Sarasota Emergency Operations. He said Sarasota had forces there to help with rescues before nightfall.

Thousands of mobile homes were damaged or destroyed. The downtown core of Punta Gorda was demolished. Historic brick buildings collapsed and glass office buildings blown out - totaled.

“Wind engineers from Clemson and Texas A&M who essentially turned this city into a petri dish said that the winds to do that and to do that to the predecessor of what was on that corner took wind gusts up to 190 mph,” Sallade said.

He still thinks Charley should be upgraded to a category 5 hurricane.

Now with 27 years of experience, Sallade is one of the most senior emergency officials in Florida.

He was asked to write a blog for FEMA on the 10th anniversary of Charley. He wrote about the city’s inhabitants and their resiliency.

“I saw the City of Punta Gorda form what ultimately became TEAM Punta Gorda which they hired an urban planner out of Miami and they redesigned the city.”

The city clock has been restored and sits on the south side of Marion Avenue across from a block of historic brick buildings that were saved.

There are several new buildings, two new hotels, a rebuilt convention and event center, a marina and a city parking garage.

But at the very center of Punta Gorda is a full city block that remains vacant. Charley destroyed the shopping mall that stood there and the recession has stymied new growth.