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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Charley would have blown Island apart

Island residents who figured their homes would be safe from Hurricane Charley's 145 mph winds shouldn't be so smug.

Structures on Anna Maria Island built prior to 2001 were not constructed to withstand the force of such winds, said Holmes Beach Assistant Public Works Superintendent Bill Saunders.

Fact is, he said, only those buildings erected after the new Florida building codes were enacted in 2001 would have had a chance against that power of Mother Nature. Even those buildings, however, were only built to withstand sustained winds of 110 mph with a peak, three-second burst of 130 mph, he noted.

In other words, said Saunders, it's "absolutely guaranteed" that the roofs of most, if not all Island homes and businesses, would have been "blown away" and few unboarded windows would have remained in the face of a 145-mph wind.

"I don't think many houses would have survived," he added. "Maybe the trusses of a few buildings would still be standing." And a lot of the older buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s would simply have disappeared under such a powerful force, or washed away by the storm surge, he added.

At noon on Aug. 13, forecasters had predicted Charley would make landfall in about six hours near the mouth of Tampa Bay as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of near 120 mph. Instead, Charley took a right turn about 2 p.m., increased in strength, and came ashore in Port Charlotte around 6 p.m. as a Category 4 hurricane packing winds of 145 mph.

"We would have looked like Sanibel if the storm had reached the Island," said Saunders. The storm surge cut North Captiva Island into two separate sections, and on Captiva Island, wiped out a road and destroyed numerous homes, motels and condominiums.

Charley likely would have created new inlets on Anna Maria Island from the Gulf to Anna Maria Sound, probably around Ninth Street South, and the Gulf Drive Cafe at 10th Street North in Bradenton Beach, he observed. The damage to mobile homes on the Island would have been as catastrophic as what people have seen in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda.

Structures built on the Island after the new, tougher state building codes enacted in 2001, however, would have withstood Charley a lot better than older buildings, said Brent Whitehead of Whitehead Construction.

"We would have had a good deal of structural loss of windows and roofs on the Island, particularly on the type of house that was built from 1950s to late 1990s," he said. Concrete block homes might have fared well, but there would have been "roof issues."

The homes built after the new state building codes were enacted, however, "would have fared better," Whitehead predicted, but he acknowledged most Island buildings don't meet the 2001 code.

According to information he's received from builders in Port Charlotte, the newer homes withstood the 145-mph winds fairly well, while the older homes suffered mild to severe damage.

The damage, however, was diverse. Some structures survived nearly intact, while an adjacent building might have been blown to pieces, he noted.

In one case Whitehead has heard about, a concrete block home built in the 1960s had all its windows blown out while next door, a newly constructed home was still structurally sound after the hurricane.

Rick Spadoni of Coastal Planning and Engineering in Boca Raton agreed that Anna Maria would have suffered catastropic damage had Charley hit here as predicted as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.

"A direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane of sustained 145 mph winds on Anna Maria Island would likely result in highly varying degrees of structural damage," said Spadoni. Newer buildings would have fared better than those built years ago.

But Spadoni, as the engineer in charge of the 2002 beach renourishment project on Anna Maria Island, was concerned about the possible storm surge here.

Given the predicted 10-foot or greater storm surge and the low elevation of Anna Maria Island, "it would be expected that the entire Island would have been under water."

But familiarity breeds wisdom.

In Miami-Dade County, the construction standard now requires a roof to be built to withstand 145-mph gusts, while the standard in the Florida Keys is 150-mph gusts. Miami-Dade toughened its building codes to exceed state requirements after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when thousands of homes were destroyed by the Category 5 hurricane.

But a 20-mph increase in a hurricane's winds is not the same as a 20-mph increase in force, explained Saunders.

"The force generated increases faster than the windspeed generated," he explained.

A Category 4 hurricane with 145-mph winds is a "killer storm," said West Manatee Fire and Rescue District Chief Andy Price. Simply put, "Had Hurricane Charley hit here as predicted, we would have been looking for the bodies of those who stayed behind on the Island."

At least one Island resident who stayed behind agreed. "I've been through these before," said Anna Maria City Commissioner Dale Woodland. "But I would have reconsidered staying and been out of here immediately," had Charley continued its northward track as a Category 4 hurricane.

The people in Port Charlotte should have heeded that warning.