PINELLAS COUNTY - Lucky, spared, grateful, blessed, relieved.
As county residents returned to their homes this weekend, even those who felt inconvenienced by the evacuation order felt a sense of relief as they began to realize just how lucky this county had been.
According to the Associated Press, 13 people are confirmed dead so far and hundreds are still missing. The damage to homes and businesses is catastrophic; an exact dollar figure is still to be determined. The only thing certain is that many, many people are in need of help. (See related story from the American Red Cross)
Hurricane Charley became the talk of the county as early as Tuesday evening as the early predictions called for the then tropical storm to reach hurricane strength by Wednesday. The storm's forecast track had it headed for Tampa Bay. Experts were warning that by Saturday, residents of Pinellas County could have a major "weather event." Charley was predicted to hit the Keys by Thursday night, and tropical storm Bonnie was moving toward the Panhandle, scheduled to hit by Thursday morning.
Thursday, Aug. 12
Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency at noon in anticipation of the potential threat from the back-to-back storms.
Pinellas County Emergency Management officials announced plans to partially activate the Emergency Management Operation Center at noon, also.
Just after noon, the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve recommendations to declare a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order for areas A, B, and C. An estimated 380,000 county residents were asked to begin making plans to leave their residences by 6 p.m.
Around 2 p.m., Hurricane Charley was upgraded to a Category 2, and experts expected tropical storm force winds to begin impacting the area within 24 hours.
By around 3 p.m., emergency officials were realizing that too few people were aware of their evacuation level. The county's Web site couldn't keep up with the traffic and the Citizens Information Center's phone lines also were busier than operators could handle. Steps were taken to alleviate the situation.
Around 4 p.m., official word was given that county schools and offices would be closed on Friday.
During a press conference at 8:30 p.m., county administrator Steve Spratt reported that area shelters were far less than full. He estimated no more than 50 to 60 people in any one shelter. He reported problems with cell phones and requested residents use them sparingly. He said the storm's projected path had not changed.
Just after 9 p.m., the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport halted flights, although the runways remained open.
After the National Hurricane Center released its 11 p.m. update on Hurricane Charley's projected path, the county called a press conference at 11:15. Gary Vickers, director of the department of Emergency Services, reported the unwelcome news.
He also reported that as of 10:30 p.m., 1,600 people were in the county's shelters. He said that 40,000 sand bags had been distributed and estimated about 70,000 remained.
Friday, Aug. 13
The 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. reports from the National Hurricane Center showed Hurricane Charley still on track for the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Marcia Crawley, with the county's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) gave an update around 9:30 a.m. and very strongly urged all residents of mobile homes to evacuate immediately.
At 9:45 a.m., Progress Energy began asking residents to conserve power and recommended that people evacuating turn off their power at the circuit breaker. The company also announced it would be shutting down its power plants on the west coast.
At 11 a.m., county officials closed the bridges to the Barrier Islands to westbound traffic. Boat owners were warned that the drawbridges would not be opened again until the storm passed. Residents leaving the islands were still allowed access.
Residents were warned that they had until about noon to get to a place of safety. Vickers was all but pleading with mobile home residents and residents of the Barrier Islands to leave their home immediately to seek shelter.
Just before noon, Progress Energy announced it would begin cutting power to the Barrier Islands, starting with St. Pete Beach and continuing to Clearwater Beach. Vickers announced at a 12:30 p.m. press conference that all power was expected to be off in the Barrier Islands by 1 p.m.
At 12:30 p.m., officials estimated the population of the county's shelters at 6,834. Vickers announced that the sand bag program had been shut down as the county was out of materials. It was reported that around 50 horses were sheltered at Walsingham Park.
Vickers responded to the fact that some of the latest weather reports were beginning to show Hurricane Charley moving east by saying it was too early to make any decisions about halting evacuation efforts as the safety of county residents was still top priority.
About 1:15 p.m., Hurricane Charley was upgraded to a Category 3 storm and almost immediately thereafter, upgraded to a Category 4. Weather reports said the storm would most likely miss the Tampa Bay area as the newest projected path showed Port Charlotte as the new target.
At 1:15 p.m., Sgt. Tim Goodman, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, announced that the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners had approved imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew for residents to be in effect through Wednesday, Aug. 18.
Hurricane Charley came on shore just about 3:30 p.m. near Captiva Island in Lee County as a Category 4 storm packing winds in excess of 145 mph.
By the 3:30 p.m. press conference from the county's Emergency Operation's Center (EOC), reporters were beginning to question when the evacuation and curfew orders would be lifted.
By 5 p.m., the National Weather Service lifted all watches and warnings for the county except a flood watch.
Just after 6 p.m., about 24 hours after it was initiated, the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners agreed to lift the Level C Evacuation order that had been in effect since 6 p.m. Thursday. The Executive Order that mandated the curfew also was lifted.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office announced that westbound traffic was being allowed to use the bridges to the Barrier Islands. People started going home.
Spratt announced that area shelters would remain open until 7 a.m. to allow people to make arrangements for transportation to return home.