PUNTA GORDA, Fl. — Hurricane Charley was one of the worst storms to hit Southwest Florida head-on, upgraded to Category 4 storm hours before it made landfall in Charlotte County. The hurricane brought winds up to 150 miles per hour, killing 15 people and destroying dozens of homes in Punta Gorda.
It was nearly a direct hit at Windmill Village in Punta Gorda.
Before Hurricane Charley hit, there were 454 manufacturing homes, once it was gone, only 30 stood. Fox 4 spoke to several of those survivors who not only worked together to rebuild their community but also offered advice as we head into the 2022 Hurricane Season.
SURVIVOR RAY RUBIN
For Punta Gorda resident Ray Rubin, it only took one question to take him back to August of 2004.
"Ray, if you had to sum up your experience with Charley in a few words to start off," asked Fox 4 Anchor Nadeen Yanes.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable. Something I don't want to go through again," Ray answered as tears well up in his eyes.
Rubin rode out the Category 4 storm at a friend's house with his wife who, through pictures, showed us how all seven people and two dogs that hid in the hallways as the storm that afternoon took a sharp last-minute turn straight to Punta Gorda. Rubin was one of the first back to Windmill Village.
"I was one of the first people back in here and it was unbelievable," Rubin choked, now not able to hold back the tears. "The damage was unreal, I can't, the houses were just rubble."
SURVIVOR JOE STROHMIER
It was around this time, that seasonal resident Joe Strohmier in Indiana at the time, got the call that his home was destroyed and began documenting his experience in a diary.
"I have a section in this diary, I'm going to give it to you - it's called 'Blood, sweat, and tears' We had it," Strohmier reflected now also with tears in his eyes. "I just felt so sorry for the people."
A portion of the diary Stohmier shared with Fox 4 read in part, "The blood came from the hundreds of sharp small snails that held even the thin paneling on the walls. The sweat was always there, the 100-degree heat, humidity, and showers daily. Tear's every day. At the gatherings it seemed like non-stop tears, the only good thing was the daily afternoon meeting where we tried to show some kind of hope for the future.'
SURVIVOR JIM BOOK
Jim Book, documented his Hurricane Charley journey through pictures, showing what was called Mount Trashmore as piles of debris line the street outside of their then-destroyed neighborhood.
"We dumped the remains out here on the road because the line at the dump was getting too long," Book said showing us those pictures.
Book shared dozens of pictures showing how homeowners spray-painted their last names and insurance companies on the walls that still stood.
"I have never seen so much devastation of personal property I don't think in my life," Book said. "Unfortunately, a lot of older people couldn't afford to rebuild, they didn't have insurance."
SURVIVOR JANET MCCLEAN
Janet McClean was working at a nearby hospital where from the third floor, she watched as her home across the street was torn from the winds that reached 150 miles per hour.
"I watched it come apart until all you saw was white and debris flying through the air. I lost my home, my home was condemned," McClean said.
REFLECTION AND LESSONS LEARNED
These four, still to this day, are apprehensive with each hurricane season that approaches.
"Before I wasn't really frightened, it happens to other people. You never think it's going to happen to you - it changed my mind," McClean said.
"I just learned I will never stay for another one," Rubin added while crying. "You have to understand everything was closed. Our street lights were out, the stores were closed, the gas stations were closed. ?It was hard."
Now offering this advice:
"I would tell them to prepare, have water, have food, have plans to evacuate if you have to," Rubin said.
"Be prepared, when you hear be prepared. We had nothing, We weren't expecting it, we were expecting it to hit Tampa, and all of a sudden, boy in a couple of houses it hit us," Strohmier added.
"Be prepared, make sure you have plenty of cash on hand, medication for a couple of weeks, and make sure there is gas in your vehicles," McClean said.
"And hope you find as many great people as we did," Book ended.
The group said it took about 2 to 4 years before they felt the community at Windmill Village was back to normal, grateful for how the neighbors came together to rebuild.