By Brad Brooks
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (Reuters) – When the people of Punta Gorda on Florida’s Gulf Coast rebuilt Charlotte High School, they vowed it would never be pulverized by a hurricane again.
This week, it passed a major test, emerging seemingly unscathed in the wake of Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to hit the U.S. mainland in years.
The school, which opened in 1921, was one of more than 10,000 buildings decimated in the harborside city of Punta Gorda when Hurricane Charley made landfall on August 14, 2004, at virtually the same spot Ian would come ashore.
Its restored neoclassical yellow-brick facade is now a proud symbol of how the city of about 20,000 people overcame destruction to rebuild itself to be more resilient.
On Thursday, after withstanding fierce winds that took down trees and power lines throughout Punta Gorda, the school served as a reminder that the relatively onerous building codes adopted by the state after prior hurricanes had their benefits.
“The whole back of it blew off in Hurricane Charley,” Brenda Siettas, 62, said of the school. “Since Charley, it’s been rebuilt better.”
Siettas, who works with children with special educational needs, said her home had taken a little damage from Hurricane Ian.
Still, she thought recovery would be much quicker than in 2004, when Charley leveled Punta Gorda and neighboring towns, causing $3.2 billion of damage in Charlotte County and destroying about 11,000 homes and 300 businesses in Punta Gorda, according to the Fort Myers News-Press.
“For Charley, I actually stayed here for two weeks with no power, no water, no sewer,” Siettas said.
Ian blasted ashore at the barrier island of Cayo Costa on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour).
Ian’s winds and floods damaged buildings across the city, and streets on Thursday were covered with fallen trees and debris. Down at the harbor’s edge, there were massive chunks of broken masonry strewn about at a building complex that houses Hurricane Charley’s Grill, Sushi & Raw Bar.
Many residents were among the millions of Floridians with their power knocked out.
Joseph Barr, a 33-year-old HVAC technician, said Ian seemed more frightening than Charley, in part because its wall-rattling winds lingered longer than with the more swift-moving 2004 hurricane.
“When Charley hit, we had a lot more mess,” he said. “That school was practically demolished.”
Florida overhauled its building codes in response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, requiring, among other things, that buildings have roofs strong enough to not be pried off by hurricane-force winds.
In rebuilding after Charley, a plaque installed in the school as a rebuke to nature’s powers read: “Never again will the winds be feared, never again.”
The building stood gleaming after the rains from Ian cleared, and it appeared that not so much as a window pane was broken. The only visible structural damage: a large metal sign denoting the school as a Florida heritage site and marking the school’s reopening in 2009 had been toppled text-side up.
Nearby, the Charlotte County Courthouse, which also had been damaged by Charley, stood unscathed besides a wind-shredded U.S. flag hanging from a flagpole.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Punta Gorda; Additional reporting and writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Diane Craft)