rebuilding after hurricane charley

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2004 Demolishing the old house and building a new one as an owner builder.


  • An Act of GodConstruction in the Wake of a Natural Disaster

    Michael Heller

    ASA1000All content of 'An Act of God' is Michael Heller 2012

    no part of this publication may be copied or reproduced without written permission from Michael Heller

  • My birthday falls on August27. I was going to be 60 that year.Six years earlier my wife and I hadmoved to Floridas southwest coastwhere we were going to start a boat-ing and fishing section for the Char-lotte Sun, the daily newspaper inPort Charlotte. We bought a nice lit-tle house right off the harbor and Ibought a fishing boat. It wasnt ex-actly a retirement move, but livingand working on the water in Florida,and taking pictures, was what Iwanted. I am a photographer.

    They made me SpecialSections Editor and I created aweekly section called WaterLine.Most of the time I was out on theboat exploring the incredible Char-lotte Harbor. I had not expected theharbor to beas big or as teemingwith wildlife as it was.

    Numerous species of game-fish, both resident and migratory,manatees dolphins, white pelicans,eagles osprys, great blue herron...the list of creatiures goes on and onso I was thrilled and the newspaperbought all the gas for the boat. Andeven better yet I worked from homemost of the time.

    I had been a photojournalistall my life. I spent a lot of timegrowing up in Florida and startedcollege at Miami. I knew the tropicsand there was a lot I still liked aboutliving here and being on the water.

    I had eft Florida in 1976and spent the next 20 years in SantaFe New Mexico as a freelancer, thenas picture editor for the daily SantaFe New Mexican and finally as anindependent publisher of our ownmonthly magazine.

    My wife, a New York girl,had never lived in the tropics withthe possibility of hurricanes everynow and then. Our first four yearswere quiet, a few tropical stormshere and there, a lot of rain, 20inches in one weekend was an eyeopener, but we had no hurricanes.Then came 2004.

    On Thursday August 12,Hurricane Charley, a cat II stormcame up from the Caribbean andheaded straight towards Florida. Thewater in the Gulf of Mexico was 89degrees, the water in Charlotte Har-bor was almost 92. In a coastalcommunity, weather talk from old-timers, longtimers and especially

    those with a maritime interest fillsthe air. You cant go to the super-market without someone adding anopinion or questioning the weatherforecast. With the warm water for itto feed on we were talking abouthow the storm could strengthen,then we went to bed. Some peoplehad evacuated, but a lot of peoplehunkered down to ride it out. It wasonly a Cat II storm, only 90 mphwinds. The consensus was it would-nt push the water up too high, thestorm was moving at over 20 mph,it will blow by, was the sentimentbecause at that time the forecasttracks had it going north off the westcoast of Florida in the Gulf.

    But the storm turned rightand headed into Charlotte harbor, an14 mile bay with mangrove treeslining both shores and manatees,gamefish, dolphins shrimp and crabsin the water. Charlotte Harbor is apristine estuary fed by two freshwater rivers. Before Charley themangroves overhung the shorelineby over 25 feet in a lot of places.baitfish and crabs populated a fan-tasy like underwater environment inthe tangle of mangrove roots and de-caying leaves. It was an ecosystemthat was truly intertwined and sym-biotic. The storm mixed it all upand for the most part all the naturrallife and beauty survived. And wesurvived too, although we some-times wondered

    Later when NOAA and thelocal weather service issued print-outs of the official track of the stormwe would learn that the geographiccenter of the eye of the hurricane,the cross hairs on the bulls eye,came within 100 yards of our house.The wind gauge at the heliport at thehospital in Punta Gorda had report-edly touched 176 mph before it andthe pole it was attached to were lev-eled by airborne debri. The hurri-cane it turned out was a tightlywound buzz-saw of a storm. It in-flicted severe wind damage withvery little water-rise and then it wasgone.

    We were publishing ourboating and fishing magazine, WaterLIFE before Hurricane Charley andwe continued to publish after thestorm and have every month since.This story chronicles our experi-ences. The chapters are taken from

    the series of monthly articles thatappeared in our magazine and re-flercts what our lives were like atthe time

    In the aftermath of thatstorm and the three others that fol-lowed that year, and then Katrina thefollowing year, and Wilma tghe yearafter that, construction in Floridawent crazy. Prices went through theroof, contractors were taking on asmuch work as they could and doingjust a little on each project to moveall those jobs along. Materials werescarce, concrete delivery had to bescheduled weeks in advance. Fastbuck artists came out of the wood-work, shoddy workmanship, ripoffs, roberies and theft. There werean endless line of scrap metal scav-engers. Disasters bring good peopletogether, but bad things still oftenhappened to those who were notalert.

    Insurance companiesacross the board stalled for time be-fore they made any payments. Thecountys building department was

    overwhelmed with permit requests.There wasnt a swimming pool cagein the area that did not collapse fromthe wind. Prices on pool cage re-placement tripled overnight. Andevery wet-back with a hammer wasin the roofing business.

    Some of these unlicensedcontractors actually helped, but howcould you know who to trust? So itwas with some reservation but withno real other alternative that, I de-cided to build our new house my-self. There were a lot of fishingguides who were also in the con-struction trades. I knew many ofthem through our publication, Icould network most of the trades-men I needed. I would be the gen-eral contractor. I knew how toestimate, price and order materials, Icould read a set of plans, I knewabout concrete work, I could sched-ule the trades, Id done all that be-fore, back when I was a kid. Butnow I was 60.

    - Michael Heller


  • At 2:00 p.m. on Friday the 13th ofAugust we gather all our last minutecontainers and important papers andput them near the door. Charley wasnow a full blown Cat III hurricanewith winds of 125 mph and was 35miles south of Sanibel. There wasmention of possible Cat IV enhance-ment and then 25 minutes later theweather service came on the air withthe news that Charley was approach-ing Captiva and was a full blown CatIV storm with winds of 140 mph. Afriend from Fon Du Lac Wisconsincalls to ask if we are some of theknuckleheads he heard about on TVwho are staying. Will this housewithstand a 140 mph wind? my wifeasks, as I stash stuff up high just incase there is a storm surge. I think fora moment and then answer No. Istop when I hear my own words re-verberate in the empty garage. At2:35 my friend Capt. Ralph Allencalls and asks: What do you think?I think this is the worst case sce-nario, I tell him and we agree it istime to leave... if its not too late. Atjust before 3 pm my wife, dog and Iare in our car. Ralph and I have de-cided to head to Arcadia. Hell takeHwy. 17 from Punta Gorda and wellrun out Kings Highway crossing theriver at 560 where we will hook upwith Route17 at Nocatee. There is notmuch traffic on the road any more.The sky is grey black with some verygusty winds. Out past the Nav-A-Gator, transformers on the telephonepoles begin to explode in electric blueeruptions. It is a scene right out of themovie Twister, but happening in reallife. This is not good, I tell my wifeas I mash the gas pedal harder into thefloorboards. At Arcadia it is raininghard and it is extremely windy. Wefind out later that a tornado blewthrough Arcadia at the time we ar-rived. We make it to SR 70 and haul-ass east in and out of torrential bandsof rain and gusty wind. It is amazinghow slowly some other people aredriving. We pass them all and keephauling-ass. In a half hour we are inclearing conditions and we reconnoi-ter with Ralph and his family at a gasstation outside of Okeechobee. Weare now out of broadcast radio rangeand have no further contact with anyreal time reports about where thestorm is headed. By the clouds I know

    it is right behindus and is stillclosing fast.Ralph decidesto continue on70 east, but webreak off for In-dian Town, run-ning on the leftside of the darkblack sky. Wepick up theTurnpike, thenthe SawgrassE x p r e s s w a yand finally Alli-gator Alley.Now we areheaded back home from behind thestorm, coming back up from thesouth. At Naples we see the first ex-amples of damage, huge highwaysigns uprooted and thrown into thepine trees. As we proceed north thescenery only gets worse. At the Char-lotte County line tractor trailers alongthe interstate are overturned and laysprawled like toys on the road. Wewait for 30 minutes near the Char-lotte County airport for the Interstateto be cleared, then we move on. Bythe time we get to the Peace Riverbridge everything is dark. From theHarborview exit we follow a statetrooper into Port Charlotte. Thetrooper swings his hand held spot-light in front of him as we moveslowly ahead, through fallen treesand dropped power lines. Calamity iseverywhere. A boat hangs against apower pole, houses and their contentsare split open and strewn e v e r y wh e r e . At Whidden Industrial Park,a cluster of metal buildings is rippedopen and balled up like tin foil in thetrash. Aluminum roofs, plastic sof-fits, and wires are everywhere. AtU.S 41 the trooper turns north and weare on our own. Driving down Edge-water we drive across lawns and in 4-wheel climb over several powerpoles and felled trees. We are head-ing home. We turn down our block infront of two houses with no roofs atall. We look at each other in silence.A chill runs down my neck, but by8:30 p.m. we are home. Our roof ismostly intact, but devoid of shingles.B

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