‘I will be praying’: Punta Gorda braces for Hurricane Ian, 18 years after Charley

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Hurricane Ian

Eighteen years ago, Kevin Doyle rode out Hurricane Charley in his Punta Gorda pub and watched as Category 4 winds blew away the roof above his head.

“It was harrowing,” Doyle said. “It was terrifying.”

The Aug. 13, 2004, storm destroyed half of Celtic Ray Public House. And the rest of Punta Gorda didn’t fare any better, taking a direct hit and suffering the worst damage in Southwest Florida.

Doyle remembers walking around downtown Punta Gorda afterward and seeing the destruction. The storm caused $3.2 billion in damage in Charlotte County and left about 11,000 of Punta Gorda’s homes and 300 of its businesses destroyed Hurricane Ian.

“You didn’t know which street you were on,” Doyle said about downtown Punta Gorda after Charley. “No landmarks, no street signs, no traffic lights. Cables lying across the road — live.”

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Now, as Hurricane Ian bears down on the west coast of Florida this week, Doyle hopes he won’t have to go through all that again. But he said he feels better about his chances if Ian follows Charley’s path and makes landfall in Punta Gorda.

After Charley, both he and his son Max Doyle rebuilt their bar with storm windows and a new roof made to Miami-Dade hurricane standards. Plus they plan to break out the generator and board up a few more of the windows Tuesday.

“I would say I’m concerned,” Max Doyle said. “I just want to get everything prepared and ready. But I wouldn’t say I’m anxious or scared.”

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The good news: Punta Gorda is considered to be in much better shape than it was in 2004. Like Celtic Ray, much of the city was rebuilt to stricter standards designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.

“Half the town got wiped out,” Kevin Doyle said. “Most of it was rubbish. It got replaced by stronger stuff.”

Now Punta Gorda — which took a direct hit from Charley — is considered a model for the rest of the world for how to rebuild after a devastating hurricane.

“Punta Gorda is an example of doing the right thing in the wake of a storm,” said Jim Beever, a retired climate change planner who lives on Pine Island. “They did the first coastal climate adaptation plan for a city in Florida, and that’s because the community was very intelligent, and knew that they wanted to build safer, better.

“They’ve been doing great. They’re recognized internationally and worldwide.”

Still, that reassurance only goes so far. And as Hurricane Ian rekindles memories of Charley in Southwest Florida, anxiety is starting to rise for some.

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Krissy Chenault may work at a bar called Hurricane Charley’s, but she said she’s in no hurry to repeat 2004 again.

“I’m a praying woman,” Chenault said Monday afternoon at the downtown Punta Gorda bar, “and I will be praying this evening and tomorrow.”

Memories of Hurricane Charley

The Port Charlotte woman saw firsthand the devastation that Hurricane Charley — the storm, not the bar — did in Charlotte County. So she’s not taking any chances with Ian.

“If they tell us to leave, I’m out,” she said. “I’m not wasting any time.”

Chenault was in Tampa with her daughter when Charley hit, but her Port Charlotte home survived the hurricane remarkably unscathed. She hopes Ian will spare it, too, and has been watching the spaghetti models and forecast cones for days now.

“I’m anxious,” she said. “It’s days and days and days of the unknown. And my kids are up in Tampa. I worry about them.”

Like many other Charlotte County businesses, Hurricane Charley’s will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday after employees take in chairs and roll down the storm shutters, Chenault said. Then she’ll go home to Port Charlotte and ride out Ian.

Stephanie Stewart plans to do the same thing at her Punta Gorda Isles condo. But she feels safer this time then she did in 2014, when Hurricane Charley ripped a hole in the roof of her former house and nearly took out her sliding-glass doors as she and some house guests braced them against the wind.

“It was scary,” Stewart said. “The wind was blowing, and you could see them bowing a little bit. But they didn’t break, so we were safe. It’s quite a memory.”

That memory keeps popping up this week as Hurricane Ian targets Florida as a possible Category 4 storm, but Stewart said her new condo was built to stronger hurricane standards. So she’s not too worried.

“The condo has hurricane windows, so I hope they’re able to withstand any winds,” she said. “That’s why we got it. Time will tell.”

At Celtic Ray, co-owners Kevin and Max Doyle are watching the weather forecasts closely and hope the hurricane spares them this time. Now it’s just a matter of watching and waiting to see what Ian does next.

“It’s like waiting for a turtle that might stop by,” Max Doyle said and smiled.

Kevin Doyle said he’s not too anxious, though. Their bar was rebuilt tougher than ever, and almost any hurricane feels a lot more manageable after Hurricane Charley.

“I’m mostly annoyed,” he said. “Because it’s an interruption of business — and life.”

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