The television just can’t do it justice. Until you see the devastation brought on by Hurricane Charley first-hand, you can’t really comprehend how much damage such a large hurricane can bring to a community.
Last weekend, while everyone around me in Pinellas County was rejoicing that Hurricane Charley decided to make landfall on the beaches of Charlotte County, my heart sunk. I knew the community I had called home until June of this year – Arcadia – was directly in the path of something so massive and so powerful that it could level the rural landscape.
It did just that.
A good friend of mine fled to Arcadia when Pinellas County was evacuated prior to Charley’s shift. I spoke with her on the phone while she was huddled in a bathroom weathering the storm.
“The eye of the storm is a little west of you,” I told her on the phone. “Hold on tight and don’t leave that bathroom.” The home she was in is virtually in shambles. Thankfully, she and the family who owns the home are all OK.
Sunday, my family and I went to Arcadia to check on past co-workers, neighbors and friends. The ones we found were shaken, but OK. The home I used to sleep in is missing a room. The office I used for nearly three years as newspaper editor has some broken windows, but seems to be intact. Electricity and running water seemed like a long-forgotten luxury in DeSoto County.
Landmarks are missing in the rural town. The Arcadia water tower, which welcomed visitors along State Road 70, is now a pile of twisted metal on top of a bus barn. The Turner Agri-Civic Center, one of the newest and most expensive facilities in the county, now looks like a used sardine can, its roof peeled back to reveal an empty hull. Even the Peace River Citrus plant, used by large corporations like Tropicana and Minute Maid to process orange juice, looks like a ghost town. Its few remaining towers, normally producing the sweet smell of processed orange, are empty funnels.
One friend cried as we pulled into her driveway. Her home, still standing, was missing part of its roof. Her husband and children all survived without injuries. Her husband has video of the devastation, but no way to watch it until electricity comes back to Arcadia. Officials with Peace River Electric don’t expect that to happen for at least another week.
Arcadia is not a well known town to folks living along the Sun Coast. The small town survives economically through its citrus groves. Tourists know Arcadia for its historic downtown district and its string of antique shops. Some of those shops are now piles or bricks along the city’s main street.
Arcadia is home to the All-Florida Championship Rodeo. Some say the first rodeo in America started there. The rodeo grounds just east of U.S. 17 have been a popular destination for those looking to enjoy outside activity during the Fourth of July holiday. The damage to the historic arena has not yet been estimated. When we were there, the area was blocked off.
Hurricane Charley’s winds blew through DeSoto County with a force of 140 miles per hour. Charlotte County to the south suffered immense damage, but those residents of Arcadia, Fort Ogden, Nocatee and Brownville – all in DeSoto County – are in dire need of support, help and prayers.
I admit, I left Arcadia to live the city life again and to enjoy the fast-paced life of a metropolis. But a part of me is still in Arcadia. The small town may be wounded – as is part of me – but both, with time, will find a way to heal and move ahead.
Steve Blanchard is a freelance writer with Tampa Bay Newspapers who recently relocated from Arcadia to Largo.