Twenty years later: Lessons from the 2004 hurricane season

Posted 5/29/24

The hurricane season of 2004 is seared into the memory of those living in the Okeechobee area that year.

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Twenty years later: Lessons from the 2004 hurricane season


The hurricane season of 2004 is seared into the memory of those living in the Okeechobee area that year.

In the span of six weeks Okeechobee experienced three major hurricanes, Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. Theses back-to-back hits disrupted everyday life, knocking out power for nearly a month, threw schools into disarray, and caused widespread damage to local businesses and homes.

Lessons from that year are more relevant than ever, especially considering how relatively lucky the Okeechobee area has been in recent hurricane seasons. It’s only a matter of time before another year like 2004 happens again.

Twenty years later, what has changed in how the county responds to hurricanes? And are we better prepared for another 2004?

One big change is a new emergency operations center. Six years after the 2004 hurricane season, Okeechobee County broke ground on a $4 million emergency operations center. The leading proponent for the new center was former Okeechobee emergency operations center Gene O’Neil. O’Neil served in the position during 2004, when the county was left reeling from the storms.  The building is designed to withstand category five winds and plays a crucial role in helping emergency managers centralize communications between various first responders.

In 2004 the Okeechobee County School District opened all their school sites as shelters. That ended up stretching staff too thin between the shelters. The district learned that lesson and now opens up a certain number of school sites, and is much better at working out schedules for manning the shelters, rotating people on and off duty while realizing that once the storm hits some people would be stuck at the shelter until the storm is over. The school system also has more generators now.

Access to generators is a big lesson from 2004, not only government agencies like the Sheriff’s Office, but residents all over the county. The back-to -back hits of Charley, Frances and Jean made restoring power slow. The weeks and weeks without an AC or refrigerator were tough. And the adversity of losing power for that long would be felt even harder in today’s world where such much of our lives depend on smartphones and internet access. In the days before a storm, many stores will quickly sell out of not only generators, but all hurricane supplies. It’s important to prepare early.

For Okeechobee, the ‘04 hurricane season officially got underway on August 13 when Hurricane Charley struck Florida’s west coast as a category 4 storm. Okeechobee County manged to miss the worst of the storm, which made landfall in Charlotte County before continuing northeast towards Avon Park.

Hurricane Charley
Hurricane Charley

While Charley was more of a glancing blow for the area, the next storm would take a much more direct path.

On Sept. 5, 2004, Hurricane Frances made landfall as a category 2 storm in Martin County, traveling northwest directly over the north of Okeechobee County. Frances knocked out power for nearly 16,000 in Okeechobee. Very few city residents had water or sewer service. A countywide curfew was put in place, keeping residents off the streets from 8 p.m. though 6 a.m.

Hurricane Frances
Hurricane Frances

The abandoned K-Mart in Okeechobee (which is now a Home Depot) was turned into a Red Cross shelter ahead of Frances. The shelter also operated as a distribution center in the weeks following the storm, with residents lining up in the early hours to receive badly needed water and supplies.

Two weeks later, with more than 5,000 Florida Power and Light (FPL) customers in Okeechobee still waiting for their power to come back,  reports began coming in of another storm forming in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hurricane Jeanne would make landfall in St. Lucie County on Sept. 26 as a category 3 storm. Jeanne continued west before taking more of a northwest turn right through the heart of Okeechobee.

Two days later, the front page headline of the Okeechobee News on Sept. 28, 2004, read: “Jeanne: Worse than Frances.”

Hurricane Jeanne
Hurricane Jeanne

The county was hit with sustained winds of 95 mph with gusts up to 110 mph. As the storm raged over Okeechobee, high winds ripped the roofs off buildings and flooded roads, homes and pastures. Instantly, over 16,000 FPL customers in Okeechobee were thrown back into darkness, many of whom had just gotten their electricity back. The roof of the Yearling Middle School gym was ripped off. Jeanne caused an estimated $1 million in damages to Okeechobee County schools.

Overall the state of Florida had five hurricanes make landfall in that six-week time frame, causing $40 billion in damage and killing nearly 100 people. Throughout the state thousands remained in shelters for weeks, not knowing if they had homes to return to.

The names of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne have been retired from the official list of Atlantic Hurricane names due to their immense destruction.

Compared to the 2004 season, Okeechobee County has been relatively lucky as of late. But at the start of every hurricane season, fears of another 2004 are always on the minds of those who experienced it.

2004 hurricane season, Okeechobee