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Hurricane Charley

Countdown to landfall

For three crucial hours, as Charley churned in the Gulf of Mexico, the pros watched and waited for the hurricane to make up its mind. Headed for Tampa Bay, Charley turned.

By BILL ADAIR, JAMIE THOMPSON, MICHAEL SANDLER and JONI JAMES
Published August 22, 2004

[AP photo]

The Air Force Reserve WC-130 plane skidded sideways as it entered the eye of Hurricane Charley. Standing in the cabin, watching gauges and computer screens, Lt. Col. Roy Deatherage struggled to keep his balance.

Lightning flashed, hail hammered the windshield. The giant storm seemed to tremble as it fed on the warm gulf waters.

The crew had been dropping 16-inch tubes called sondes. Equipped with high-frequency radios, the tubes have small parachutes so they can fall through the storm and, twice a second, transmit temperature, pressure and wind speed data. The plane also was fitted with probes on the fuselage that constantly monitored the storm's vital signs.

At 12:58 p.m., as Charley neared the Florida coast, the probes detected a change. The storm was intensifying.

* * *

Steve Spratt could be forgiven for his slightly wrinkled khaki slacks. He looked pretty darn good for someone who had just worked a 20-hour day, slept all of two hours and come back on duty. And that didn't even count the images playing in his mind.

It was early Friday morning, Charley had Pinellas County dead in its sights and Spratt, the county administrator, had a million and two things to keep up with.

His nerves were shot because of what he experienced 12 years ago. Spratt had been a Dade assistant county administrator when Hurricane Andrew called.

Spratt rode out Andrew by pressing a mattress against his French doors, to keep them from bursting open. When daylight broke, he drove through the county's Cutler Ridge area and saw houses reduced to rubble.

Those images were with him now at the Pinellas operations center in downtown Clearwater. He had gone home at 2 a.m. and made sure the contractor he had hired to put plywood on his windows had done a good job. When he finally lay down around 3 a.m., his three dogs kept scraping the plywood. He suspected Madeline, Sierra and Lucky were spooked by something in the air that said a storm was coming.

Even after they stopped scratching, Spratt could not sleep.

He came back to the command center at 6 a.m., fueled by a banana and coffee. About 10, he got word that more than 100 people were refusing to leave Lake Shore Village mobile home park. They were having a hurricane party.

Great. Spratt sent his communications director to get the word out. She went before the cameras and pleaded for people to leave.

"People are having a good time," she said. "That's not a good sign. We'd like to see those parking lots empty."

Spratt kept picturing how dark Pinellas would be this time tomorrow. He imagined downed power lines in puddles. People buried under rubble. Looters shot in a suddenly lawless society. Some party.

* * *

Max Mayfield turned his Toyota Solara into the parking lot of the National Hurricane Center, a concrete bunker on the edge of Florida International University in Miami.

Mayfield, the director, has worked at the hurricane center 32 years and knows hurricanes as well as anyone in the world. A tall man with a gentle manner, he grew up in Oklahoma, fascinated by tornadoes. In college he was an amateur tornado chaser, amateur being the operative word: He never caught a single one.

He slept about four hours Thursday night and checked the latest Charley forecasts Friday morning from his home computer. His forecasters seemed right on the mark. Charley was following the expected track toward west-central Florida. Also as they had warned, it appeared to be strengthening.

In a red tie and blue shirt, the 55-year-old director strode into the hurricane operations area around noon. He would be interviewed many times at the center's TV desk and was complying with a longstanding request from news producers, who said blue shirts looked better on camera.

The center is outfitted with state-of-the-art computers linked to the federal government's most sophisticated supercomputers in Washington, D.C. Predicting a storm's path is so complex that it takes a supercomputer about four hours to estimate a single track.

For all the technical horsepower, vestiges of the old days remain. Forecasters use colored pencils and rulers to plot storms on graph paper. A tracking map on the wall uses magnetic, swirling hurricane symbols that are moved by hand.

In the nerdy world of meteorology, hurricane forecasters are the varsity quarterbacks, scientists who save lives. They speak of storms like they admire the beasts, saying they have "nice circulation" and "good outflow."

It's not fondness. It's awe.

Mayfield greeted Miles Lawrence, the forecaster assigned to follow Charley on the day shift Friday. At 65, Lawrence is the staff's oldest - and probably most athletic - meteorologist.

Lawrence had noticed a distinct change in the latest radar images of Charley. The storm seemed to be bobbling to the right.

Instead of targeting Pinellas, it looked as if it was headed for Charlotte County.

* * *

From beneath a blue ball cap, Wayne Sallade stared at a swirling radar image on his computer screen.

What is this thing up to?

Like his counterparts, Sallade, the emergency management director in Charlotte County, was running on minimal sleep. He had gotten up at 3 a.m. and left his ranch-style home in Port Charlotte. Staying behind were his wife, three children, two dogs, a rabbit named Blossom and an 82-year-old aunt who had evacuated her mobile home park in Punta Gorda.

Sallade had covered his windows with hurricane glass two years ago. If the storm hit, his family knew to stay in a hallway.

He drove to the emergency operations center, a converted warehouse with steel beams and aluminium framing. It looked like an insurance office without cubicles. Sallade had gone to bed expecting Charley to aim for Tampa Bay. Now it looked like it was turning his way.

For 17 years, Sallade had warned of a tempest decimating Charlotte County. He talked so much about hurricanes that he received a special state achievement award in 1997 for outstanding leadership in hurricane preparation.

Dr. Doom and Gloom, people called him. The Master of Disaster.

Each time a storm swirled toward his coast, Sallade hunkered down in his operations center, contemplating the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. He was criticized for being melodramatic, for issuing warnings about storms that never came. He never apologized.

"Someday," Sallade said six years ago, "we're going to get one that comes right up the harbor, and we need to be prepared."

Odd then, for the Master of Disaster, that his own agency was housed in a building that would withstand only 110 mph winds. If Charley gained speed and turned toward them, the man in charge of protecting Charlotte County would have to run for it.

The county had promised him he'd get a new building in 2006, which long about now wasn't doing him much good.

* * *

Progress Energy announced it would be shutting down power to the Pinellas beaches.

Steve Spratt knew it wasn't enough to get people out of their homes. The danger wouldn't pass with the storm. Spratt envisioned long nights of total darkness, power failures that could keep the county dark for weeks.

Pinellas needed a curfew. It would keep people off the roads, prevent deaths from live power lines or fallen trees. It would cut down on looting and crime.

Lawyers drew up the papers. The curfew would last five days. Spratt asked Susan Latvala, chairwoman of the county commission, to sign it. She did not hesitate. Latvala and the other commissioners trusted Spratt.

A sheriff's deputy went before TV cameras and announced the curfew would begin at dusk.

A few minutes later, Spratt's chief deputy told him that someone with the city of Clearwater was questioning the decision. "They don't understand why you need this," his deputy told him.

"You just don't know if you have to ask that question," Spratt said.

He kept thinking his next televised press conference could be the last for days.

"People need to know before the lights go out," he said.

Around noon, some old friends from Miami-Dade who had gone through Andrew called Spratt to wish him luck. They were watching Charley from their own operations center. Spratt put the call on speaker phone.

"Looks like we are not going to be hit, but it's headed your way," an assistant Miami-Dade county manager said. "Be assured, we are prepared to lend whatever help you need."

Spratt looked at Latvala. She had a tear in her eye.

* * *

High above the gulf, the 155,000-pound hurricane hunter plane glided through 110 mph winds. Its crew of 10 Air Force reservists had left the blue skies at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi about 7 a.m., streaking toward Charley at 350 mph.

The plane looks like a commercial airliner, but instead of plastic paneling, the walls are a mess of wires. A large circular fuel tank that looks like a missile sits in the cargo compartment, with everything from tool boxes to trash cans strapped to the floor.

Charley was a strong Category 2 storm, but well-behaved, barely shaking the old military plane.

All in all, Lt. Col. Deatherage thought, the flight was vanilla.

The crew cut an X pattern through Charley, flying 120 miles from the eye on each side of the storm. With rain streaking across the windows, crew members described it like flying through a washing machine.

The crew periodically dropped sondes to get temperature, pressure and wind readings. A crew member receives, analyzes and encodes the data, which is transmitted to a satellite and on to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The crew snapped pictures of the clouds and took turns looking at Charley on a black and white radar screen, gaping at its exceptional shape. A perfect doughnut.

They crisscrossed through the eyewall, the storm's most vicious band of winds. After punching through, the crew marveled at the calm, 12-mile eye. It was impressive, but not the most beautiful they had seen, bands of gray clouds swirling through a circle.

On their fourth trip into the eye, the WC-130 began to shake. Pressure dropped rapidly, lightning crackled, 145 mph winds whipped.

A sonde transmitted fresh data to Deatherage's computer screen. He was impressed. In 16 years of flying into hurricanes, rarely had he seen pressure readings so low.

* * *

The morning radar images and data beamed from the hurricane hunter had convinced Lawrence and Mayfield that the storm was getting more powerful and turning toward Charlotte Harbor.

At 1 p.m., they issued a bulletin:

"CHARLEY STRENGTHENS AS IT HEADS TOWARD FLORIDA WEST COAST ... THE CENTER OF THE HURRICANE SHOULD REACH THE COAST IN THE VICINITY OF CHARLOTTE HARBOR LATER THIS AFTERNOON."

It got worse. Just six minutes later, a single-page report from the hurricane hunter was printed out for Mayfield and Lawrence.

To anyone else, the report looked like a jumble of letters and numbers. To them, the last line practically jumped off the page:

MAX FL WIND 141 KT NE QUAD 1658Z

Winds were 141 knots, or 162 mph, in the northeast quadrant of the storm. The measurement was taken at "FL," the plane's flight level of 10,000 feet.

Mayfield and Lawrence did quick math in their heads. Wind speeds on the ground are usually 90 percent of the flight-level number. That meant the storm was about to hit the Florida coast with winds of 145 mph.

Charley was mutating into a monster. A Category 2 storm in the morning, just minutes ago it had been upgraded to a Category 3.

"Ed, it looks like we've got a Cat 4!" Mayfield hollered to his deputy, Ed Rappaport, who was at the TV desk between interviews.

Mayfield turned back to Lawrence, seated at a computer, and put a hand on his shoulder. "You're not going to like this, but we're going to put out a special advisory." Lawrence would have to scramble to make multiple deadlines.

Within 10 minutes, Lawrence's urgent update was transmitted to thousands of government offices and TV and radio stations. The alert said Charley had "AN ESTIMATED SURFACE WIND OF 145 MPH . . . CATEGORY FOUR ON THE SAFFIR SIMPSON HURRICANE SCALE."

Mayfield arranged a quick conference call to alert state and county disaster planners.

"The bottom is dropping out," he said on the call. "It's a Cat 4. It looks like it's keeping on the same track to the right of the previous forecast."

Days earlier, Mayfield had called his buddy Wayne Sallade to make sure he knew about a tropical depression the Hurricane Center was tracking. Mayfield had said, "Just wanted to make sure you're going to be in town."

Sallade had said he would be.

Now it was Sallade's turn. He called Mayfield.

"Is this thing coming up Charlotte Harbor?" he asked.

"Wayne," Mayfield said, "it's coming right toward you."

* * *

In the state's command center in Tallahassee, state emergency director Craig Fugate launched an unscheduled news briefing at 1:53 p.m. His voice was strident, his delivery nearly breathless.

"Bringing you an urgent update for residents of Southwest Florida, for the counties of Collier, Lee, Charlotte and northward," he began.

"In conversations with the hurricane center, Hurricane Charley is rapidly strengthening. It is now a Category 4 hurricane with wind speeds of 145 mph. The track of this storm has shifted to the right dramatically, raising the risk . . . that the landfall will be farther south, impacting the counties south of the previous track."

Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium and urged residents of barrier islands in Collier, Lee and Charlotte to evacuate.

"Now. Immediately."

* * *

Winds of 170 mph tossed the plane. The crew bounced in its seats, stomachs churning. Several people on board grabbed brown paper bags, overcome with nausea.

Chunks of hail hammered the windshield. The plane pushed sideways through the storm, working to complete the final leg of its X pattern. The crew planned to gather one last batch of data before heading back toward blue skies.

Below, the outline of barrier islands along Charlotte Harbor appeared. The crew could see palm trees swaying wildly, boats crashing into docks.

The hurricane hunter headed home. Charley took its last breaths of warm gulf water and headed for shore.

* * *

Wayne Sallade ordered everyone out of the emergency operations center in Punta Gorda.

The 911 operators moved to the county jail. Emergency workers headed to an administrative office building at the county airport that was outfitted with steel hurricane shutters.

Sallade was not ready to abandon his command center. From the ministadium replicas on his desk to his computer system, he was at home.

"I've got a lot of me in this place," he told himself, playing out the crazy role of captain as the last one off the sinking ship.

He stayed behind with about a half-dozen colleagues and friends. They tracked the storm on radar. The building started rattling.

Sallade called Mayfield for an update.

"The winds are at 145," Mayfield warned. "You need to get out of there - now."

Sallade grabbed his blue rain slicker and shouted: "We have to leave! Everyone out! Now!"

He fought 70 mph winds running for his white Ford Expedition. He steered toward the county airport, debris slamming his windshield. He stopped, barely able to force his car door open. Two people grabbed his shirt and pulled him inside the airport.

At 3:17 p.m., Sallade turned to a friend, a radio reporter, to help get out the word. He broadcast live on five southwest Florida stations.

It's too late to run, Sallade warned. "Sit down tight and ride it out. Get in a safe room. You need to stay away from glass, get into a walk-in closet."

The winds increased to 100 mph, a wall of white, like a snowstorm. A mourning dove crashed in the parking lot, then wobbled toward shelter under a patrol car. Minutes later, the bird blew away.

The roof peeled off a building next door. Airplanes tumbled down the runway. At 4:59 p.m., the power failed.

Sallade commandeered a 5-inch, battery-operated TV from somebody. Everyone figured he was staring at the fuzzy image of NBC news.

He watched it all right, but what they didn't know was that his eyes kept cutting over to the metal bolts of the hurricane shutters.

They were rattling. If they came undone, he thought, they would lose the building.

Staff writer Chase Squires and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 22, 2004, 01:27:19]


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