NEW PORT RICHEY — The winds of fortune can shift quickly, West Pasco residents learned the hard way during the 2004 hurricane season.
For officials marking the 10th anniversary of four storms that battered the state, complacency now appears to be the biggest enemy after relative calm years during the past decade.
Winds in the upper atmosphere often have pushed storms out to sea away from Florida, but in 2004 those currents helped steer storms toward Florida.
In August 2004, Hurricane Charley was making a beeline for the Suncoast on a Friday the 13th. Residents breathed a sigh of relief as Charley changed course within hours of making landfall.
Charley whipped up rain, widespread power outages and threatened to form tornadoes in this region. Punta Gorda, well to the south, took the brunt of destruction from high winds clocked at 150 mph from the Category 4 hurricane.
The 2004 hurricane season, however, was only getting started. Hurricane Frances ruined the Labor Day weekend. Ivan followed about a week later but like Charely veeredaway from the area. Jeanne blew into town in late September.
Jeanne’s winds toppled a towering silver oak tree onto Mary Skidmore’s home of 40 years on Cedar Point Drive.
“I knew I was starting a new life,” Skidmore, 92 at the time, said. “I was in shock.”
For seven weeks Skidmore lived in a hotel while dealing with insurers.
Every cloud has a silver lining, Skidmore learned. The week before Christmas 2004 she moved into her new home, a Grand Valley modular unit off Osteen Road in New Port Richey, where she lived until her death in 2009.
County Administrator Michele Baker, then the Pasco County director of emergency management, said in December 2004 the active hurricane season had shattered residents’ complacency about storm preparedness.
With Charley threatening, only about a quarter of Pasco coastal residents obeyed a mandatory evacuation order. Had Charley remained on course, those folks could have been in deep trouble, Baker said.
Panicked residents hitting the roads at the last minute could have caused a massive traffic jam. More than likely the desperate evacuees would have been stuck in their cars when hurricane winds hit, Baker said at the time.
Even so, many residents had to go without electricity for a week, until utility crews could catch up with all the havoc Charely caused.
“It doesn’t take a killer hurricane to knock power out,” Baker d in December 2004. She was an emergency management official in Miami-Dade County when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in August 1992.
Over the last decade government officials have urged residents to prepare a disaster supplies kit well in advance of an emergency.
Warnings this year started about four months ago in April from about a dozen agencies that included Sheriff Chris Nocco, Emergency Management Director Annette Doying and Health Department Administrator Mike Napier.
Heavy rain from Tropical Storm Debby in late June 2012 caused serious flooding in parts of Pasco that offered a hint of the destruction a major hurricane strike on the area would cause.
“Our big message today is that it can happen to any of us,” Nocco said in April.
The county might have to bypass four shelters near the coast during major hurricanes, Doying added. That could mean a deficit of 5,000 shelter spaces, so emergency leaders have been looking at contingency plans.
“Our role at the health department during hurricanes is to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens,” Napier said. “We cannot effectively do that with those residents unless they take an active role in their care.”
Many people need to figure out how to contact relatives who live outside the area, Nocco said. Families must agree on where they would meet if they are displaced. Dogs, cats and other pets are relying on their owners to be ready. He recommends stocking a survival box of necessities now.
“We’ve been blessed in Florida the past couple of years that we have not seen a major, natural disaster,” Nocco //said. “That does not mean it cannot happen. People get very comfortable. They say it won’t happen to me, it won’t happen here in Pasco County. It can.”