It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Hurricane Charley ripped through Southwest Florida, destroying homes, leveling communities and scaring the crap out of me. I was working as a reporter at WINK-TV at the time. During the early morning hours of Friday, August 13 I got ready for work, put my dog in the bathtub with plenty of food and water and prayed he’d be ok.
I was sent to the beach with a photographer and another reporter to cover the hurricane’s arrival. As the storm started to pick up we decided to venture out in a station SUV. I truly felt close to death. Streets were deserted. Rain flew sideways. A port-a-potty glided past us like a leaf floating in the breeze. Power lines dropped from the sky. And we were 30 miles from the worst of it.
In the days that followed I worked the longest, hardest, most draining hours of my life. I’d finally end my shift only to have to fill sand bags from a pile the city dumped in a downtown park so residents could protect their homes. My house was feet from the Caloosahatchee River and I’d been warned it might blow its banks. For the next couple of weeks I was sent daily up to Charlotte County, the worst hit. News crews descended from all over. I rode in fire trucks as they surveyed the damage. I saw forks drilled into telephone polls from powerful winds and delicate tea cups sitting on shelves, surrounded by rubble.
There were no grocery stores open. Few fast food restaurants were still standing. I relied on half-eaten pop tarts, cold canned ravioli and bottled water from rescue organizations to keep going. While it was one of the most trying times in my career as a reporter, it was also one of the most rewarding. I saw firsthand the love and compassion people can have when strangers are struggling. People came from all over to bring food, clothing and water to people who had lost everything. One man spent thousands of dollars filling a huge tank with gas, only to give it away for free to people who needed to keep their generators going. The storm that I thought could have killed me tried its best to wipe out Charlotte County Florida. But I think it only made the community– and me– stronger.