Byline: BILL HUTCHINSON email@example.com Compiledfrom reports by the Herald-Tribune hurricane coverage team
People who know storms could sense trouble as soon as Hurricane Charley started taking shape, just north of Venezuela over the hot surface of the Caribbean Sea.
Forecasters were tracking Tropical Storm Bonnie deep in the Gulf of Mexico when Tropical Depression No. 3 demanded attention on Aug. 9, the first day of a new school year in Southwest Florida.
By the time students were boarding buses home, No. 3 was already "of more concern" than Bonnie to Sarasota County emergency management director Gregg Feagans, among others.
No. 3 was moving fast -- 22 mph, four times faster than Bonnie, a much smaller storm -- and had picked up power heading out into open ocean, where hurricanes thrive.
Monday night, with winds at 65 mph, the National Hurricane Center forecast that No. 3 would enter the Gulf the following Saturday as Hurricane Charley.
"You need to get your supplies together," Feagans said. "It's the beginning of the hurricane season, for real."
Wednesday, Aug. 11
Charley's winds intensified to Category 2 status, and the western end of Cuba was all that stood in its path to the Gulf.
At various times, emergency officials predicted Charley was headed for Bonita Beach, Charlotte Harbor and downtown Sarasota.
Hurricane watches were posted from the Keys to Anna Maria Island and along the southwest coast; winds of 40 mph were expected by Friday morning.
But nothing was certain.
In 1985, Hurricane Elena seemed headed straight for Tampa and then stalled in the Gulf and took a swipe at Biloxi, Miss., instead.
Schools remained in session. "If we see a serious situation, we very likely could close half-day, but I don't see that right now," said Charlotte County emergency coordinator Wayne Sallade.
His counterpart in Sarasota County, Feagans, was preparing "for a Gabrielle-type event," he said, referring to the tropical storm that caused more than $1 million in damage in 2001. "Which would be trees down and people without power."
The first of two dozen members of Feagans' first-response team moved with their families into a special hurricane shelter on Proctor Road.
In Arcadia, Darlene Sewall closed on the purchase of her brand new house, in which she planned to ride out the storm.
In Manatee County, businessman Rick Jones shopped for plywood to cover the windows of his company's offices.
And in Port Charlotte, Phillip Carpenter bought five sheets of plywood for his windows at home.
"I think we're going to get popped by this storm," he said.
Charley, already on its way to becoming a Category 3 storm with winds up to 115 mph, had "the potential to be the one we've all been warning about," said Gov. Jeb Bush.
"This is really our nightmare scenario," said state meteorologist Ben Nelson in Tallahassee, who noted that morning the possibility that Charley could become a Category 4 storm, with winds up to 155 mph and storm surges of 12-16 feet in Tampa Bay.
Recalling Category 4 Hurricane Donna, which cut across the state from Fort Myers to St. Augustine in 1960, emergency management officials warned that even Florida residents off the Gulf Coast should be prepared for ferocious winds and heavy rain.
"If Charley comes up and hits the peninsula as a strong hurricane, moving at its current speed, it will cross the state as a hurricane," said Craig Fugate, director of Florida's emergency-management operations.
Officials estimated that 6.5 million of the state's 17 million residents were directly in Charley's projected path.
"We're toast," said Longboat Key Town Manager Bruce St. Denis.
From Key West to Tampa, more than a million coastal homes were ordered evacuated, including 380,000 in Pinellas County, and more than 120,000 from Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.
In Charlotte, residents who refused to move were asked to sign next-of-kin forms providing contact information in the event of death or injury.
People everywhere flocked to stores for nonperishable food, bottled water and batteries.
A Home Depot in Sarasota sold a truckload of plywood, 800 sheets, an hour.
Crazy Papa's BP station in Manatee sold 7,000 gallons of gas before noon. At a BP station in Sarasota, manager Mike Dose ran out of gas by 3 p.m. "It's just crazy," he said.
An estimated 2 million people -- and a 1,200-pound manatee named Hugo, shipped by truck to shelter in Orlando by Mote Marine -- fled the storm.
More than 70 shelters opened in schools and public buildings all along the Gulf Coast. In Charlotte County, however, residents found "refuge sites," but had to head north into Sarasota County for a Red Cross-designated "shelter."
The relief organization does not provide shelters in buildings less than 18 feet above sea level, and virtually all of Charlotte lies below that elevation.
John and Jeanette Schoener of Longboat Key joined 700 others at Sarasota's Tuttle Elementary, where the mood was upbeat.
"I packed magazines and crossword puzzles, and I plan to do a lot of people-watching," said Jeanette Schoener, as she relaxed on a lounge chair from home. "I just hope I'm not watching trees and cows fly past the windows."
Friday, B.C. (Before Charley)
At 5 o'clock Friday morning, Charley was a Category 3 hurricane on track to slam into Tampa.
As the morning progressed, Charley seemed headed toward Venice, then Sarasota, then Tampa again.
At 8:30, Mel's Cut-Rate Liquors opened for business on largely deserted Main Street in Sarasota. "I figured when people get bored they drink," said owner Harnish …