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Arts / Culture

Hurricane Charley Forges TEAM Punta Gorda

In a matter of hours August 13th, 2004, Hurricane Charley demolished historic downtown Punta Gorda. Quaint brick shops collapsed. Glass office buildings were blown out. Thousands of mobile homes disintegrated pounded by the 150 mph winds.

The next day, Wally Satar used a tow truck to pull apart twisted steel, engine blocks and welding tanks at his brother’s Mystic Gas Station. He was trying to salvage tools and anything that didn’t blow away.

The only thing left standing  was one wall and a white car perched atop the hydraulic lift.

“That’s the only thing staying up. Everything else is gone,” Satar said survey the mangled gas pumps. “This building was built about 40 years ago, a steel building, a very strong building. And look at it now, there’s nothing left. Everything is gone.”

The gas station was never rebuilt. Now on that spot is the Four Points Hotel by Sheraton hotel on North Highway 41 just before the bridge over Charlotte Harbor

Ten years later, there’s the sound of growth in downtown Punta Gorda.

Chris Evans is overseeing remodeling at the Turtle Club, inside one of the few remaining historic brick buildings on Marion Avenue the core of downtown.

“The business has been closed about six years, but it’s going to reopen in October,” Evans said. “It’s basically American seafood. We’re going to do outdoor dining. We also have a claw bar, craft beer on tap, live entertainment.

His childhood friend, Mark Figueredo said the restaurant is symbolic of the community’s spirit just like the historic River City Grille next door.

“It’s not just this restaurant but like a second renaissance in downtown Punta Gorda,” Figueredo said.

The first renaissance was started by the category 4 Hurricane Charley that flattened much of downtown..

“You had Hurricane Charley and lots of homes got rebuilt but then you had ‘hurricane economy’ that came and we had a massive downfall and it’s almost like we can do that again,” Figueredo said.

Part of his excitement comes because of TEAM Punta Gorda, the non-profit community group that formed after Charley. Figueredo and his friend Evans both got involved.

“It was the first time a community-led grassroots organization came together and decided this is who we are, this is our vision,” Evans said.

Nancy Prafke and her husband were home shopping in the historic community in 2004 when Hurricane Charley was churning in the Gulf. Not wanting to get caught in the evacuation traffic, they left for their Colorado home three days before the storm moved ashore.

Despite the devastation, they moved to Punta Gorda about six months after Charley.

Prafke volunteered for TEAM Punta Gorda and served as CEO for several years until she resigned in 2013 to run for city council. She won.

“A lot of the people who got involved were people who transplanted here and there was a lot some skepticism,” Prafke said. “But the citizens came together and said we can make our community better, we know we can do this and the government was so embroiled in basic services and cleaning up.”

So, the non-profit organization, raised more than $250,000 in about eight  weeks and hired a city planner, Jaime Correa from the University of Miami. She said initially he did not want to take the project because it brought back bad memories of Hurricane Andrew.

“Residents drove over and made a special appeal and he came and saw and said I have to do it,” Prafke said.

Correa and a group of architects met with citizens of Punta Gorda for a week in the only community space still standing, Sacred Heart Catholic Church. By the summer of 2005, less than a year later, TEAM Punta Gorda unveiled a city master plan and gave it to the city and county.

She said initially the organization and their plan received a cold reception from city and county officials. But over time a trust relationship evolved with the city.

“I knew that we had arrived when I started getting phone calls that said do you think that TEAM Punta Gorda could do this or do that,” Prafke said. “That felt really good that our city government had the confidence in us.”

She says it took a couple of years to see visible signs of progress, but at the five year mark, there were few outward signs of the disaster.

“That’s the lesson that FEMA learned was getting the community involved will speed up the pace of the recovery dramatically. It did here,” Prafke said.

And Team Punta Gorda did not stop with the master plan. It has helped with projects like the walkway along Charlotte Harbor and a free bicycle lending program.

And TEAM Punta Gorda’s mission is ongoing to make the city a better place to live, work and play, Prafke said.

“People have asked me when it was the anniversary of Charley in years past, ‘How will you know when you’re done?’” Prafke said. “There won’t be an end. We’ll always be wanting something different and new and we’ll think of new ideas.”