Barbara Albin remembers thinking that Hurricane Charley’s impact on Punta Gorda would not be a big deal.
“I took an overnight bag to stay with friends on higher ground because we were worried about flooding, but not about the wind,” recalled the contemporary painter, then the president of the artists’ cooperative Sea Grape Gallery, where she remains a member.
When the Category 4 storm was headed for Tampa Bay, on Aug. 13, 2004, residents of this quaint city 100 miles south didn’t expect serious repercussions. But then Charley turned abruptly, and Punta Gorda, situated along Charlotte Harbor, took a direct hit, resulting in seven deaths, $3 billion in damages, and thousands of destroyed or damaged homes and businesses.
“My house was just trashed,” Albin said. “When I went to check out the gallery, it looked OK from the front, but inside I could see a giant hole where the roof had been. All the paintings were rained on -- I lost 13 personally. It just destroyed everything.”
A decade later, Sea Grape, in the city’s historic district, is thriving, with more than 20 exhibiting members and an airy, light-filled storefront with exposed brick.
“We discovered that brick wall when we were rebuilding,” said Albin, who later organized a Charley-themed art exhibit and also helped start the popular downtown Gallery Walk the third Thursday of every month.
Just as Albin’s house and workplace has been made over, so has the city of 17,000 she’s called home since 2000.
“The storm took a lot of old things that were ready to go and left us with a clean slate,” Albin said, lamenting only the still-vacant lot across the street left by a shopping center too damaged to save.
Longtime resident Court Nederveld called Punta Gorda before and after Charley “night and day,” especially with improvements made in the past few years. “Before, we were a sleepy village. Now there’s a vibrancy downtown that is palpable.”
Nederveld, a bicycling enthusiastic, cited new buildings, hotels, restaurants, parks, and particularly Punta Gorda Pathways, an 18-mile paved trail system (nine miles are completed) for bicyclists, skaters, walkers, and joggers. Part of the system lines the waterfront along the harbor, the terminus of the Peace River.
Much credit for the city’s renaissance goes to TEAM Punta Gorda, a volunteer group that formed after Charley to help the city get back on its feet.
“We citizens got together and became like a big family,” said Judy Brentano, chief operations officer for the apolitical group. “Anytime we needed anything, people volunteered.”
With the help of urban planners, they presented a master plan to the City Council. A decade later, “we virtually have almost worked our way through it,” she said, including the Pathways project. “We didn’t plan to be here for the long term. We’re no longer rebuilding and revitalizing; we’ve moved forward with a lot of other projects.”
Here are some highlights of the new Punta Gorda:
Punta Gorda Pathways. Nine miles of the 18-mile multiuse paved trail system were completed in 2013, with three connecting trails winding along the waterfront, past several parks, through the city’s historic neighborhood, and south along U.S. 41.
Fishermen’s Village. Built on the site of the former municipal pier, the waterfront shopping mall, marina and vacation resort was designed to resemble a traditional fishing village. The vacation villas were renovated after the property sustained more than $3.5 million in damages from Charley. The Village hosts many local events, and sightseeing cruises and fishing charters leave from the marina.
Laishley Municipal Marina Park. Redeveloped and inaugurated in 2008, this attractive waterfront park had once been a “tin-can” trailer park for winter visitors. A $7 million investment added an 85-slip marina, floating docks, gazebo, landscaping, interactive fountain, and retail space, including the Crab House Restaurant, which boasts expansive views of Charlotte Harbor. The park also houses the “Spirit of Punta Gorda Statue,” a memorial made of steel and hurricane debris depicting two palm trees, one standing straight and the other bent, symbolizing the community’s resilience and spirit after Hurricane Charley.
Blanchard House Museum of African American History and Culture. Housed in a 1925 home, the museum, a stop along the Florida Black Heritage Trail, displays memorabilia and artifacts reflecting Charlotte County’s African American history. The museum opened shortly before Hurricane Charley hit, sustained significant damage and reopened 18 months later.
Murals. Two dozen colorful murals depicting early life in the city and maintained by the Punta Gorda Historical Mural Society grace the sides of downtown buildings. Several had to be repaired after Charley, and others are new since the storm. The society provides walking tour maps.
Office and retail centers. Herald Court Centre is a mixed-use facility completed in 2009 and managed by the city. The beautiful brick work for the patio was laid by TEAM Punta Gorda volunteers. Across the street is the Sunloft Center, a modern, colorful building, open since 2008, that replaced a dated dark-glass office building damaged by Charley.
Four Points By Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside. Upgraded Sheraton features 106 rooms, many with harbor views. The waterfront TT’s Tiki Bar is a popular stop on the Pathways and is the top spot downtown to view the sunset. The site once held a Holiday Inn, which was destroyed by Hurricane Charley.
Wyvern Hotel. The city’s first boutique hotel, opened in 2008, has 64 stylish rooms and a rooftop swimming pool and bar especially popular during sunset.
Punta Gorda Ice Plant building. The 1890s building, once an ice plant for the fishing industry and on the National Registered of Historic Places, lost its roof and a wall to Charley. The building was saved and in 2007 the English-themed Ice House Pub opened, serving traditional English fare and local and imported craft beers.
Deans South of the Border. At this local Tex-Mex favorite, a cheerful hacienda-style structure in a new location replaced the original building, which was destroyed in the hurricane. The owners brought Hurricane Charley back -- in the form of a second restaurant. In 2014, Hurricane Charley’s Raw Bar & Grill is open at the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel, which, under the name Best Western Waterfront Hotel, was torn apart by Charley and later refurbished. The new restaurant’s decor includes Hurricane Charley photos and memorabilia.
Travel and tourism information at http://www.charlotteharbortravel.com/
Punta Gorda Pathways maps at http://www.ci.punta-gorda.fl.us/depts/growthmgmt/ringaroundcity.html