PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (Sept. 2, 2004) — When Hurricane Charley pummeled the southwest Florida coast on Aug. 13, Corky Benner, co-owner of Don's Tire DC Automotive Inc. in Port Charlotte, and his wife huddled in a closet at their home with their two dogs and three cats.
In what he described as “the wrath of God,” Mr. Benner said the winds shook his concrete home, lifted the roof off his master bedroom then dropped it at an angle. Nothing is left of his home, which is now condemned as uninhabitable for living. On the other hand, his dealership survived the storm but didn't have power for more than a week. So Mr. Benner, his partner Don Albertson, and their employees have been busy helping other hurricane victims by fixing flat tires out of their mobile trucks.
“I'm tired. I'm really tired,” Mr. Benner told Tire Business. “We're trying. We're hanging in there. It would be nice if we had some doors to put in the (store). I've got one tied up with rope. I got another one with wire. I got another one propped up with tires so we don't get vandalized anyway.”
During the week following the hurricane, Mr. Benner and his staff cleaned up the building and torn parts of roof insulation. The day that Tire Business called Don's Tire for this report was the first time Mr. Benner said he had heard the phone ring. On Aug. 24, the dealership received electricity and reopened for business, though most of the work has centered on cleaning up the mess left behind.
“All our guys are back, and they know we may not be able to pay them for awhile. But everyone's back in,” Mr. Benner said of his four employees. “Everybody's pulling together at our shop anyway.”
He said he has spent much of his time on the road in his truck fixing flat tires free of charge for some cleanup crews moving debris.
“For me, it was not a point of making money, it was trying to get these guys going,” he said. “We plugged what we can plug and patched what we can patch. If we got stuff to replace, we'll do it.”
Don's Tire incurred an estimated $100,000 in damage and will need to replace the roof, Mr. Benner said. He and Mr. Albertson, who have been in business together for 12 years, have moved their families into safe living conditions.
Tire dealers in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte felt the brunt of Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm with wind speeds up to 140 mph. Unlike Mr. Benner, not all had a business to come back to and reopen.
American Tire Distributors Inc. (ATD) reported that all 20 of its dealers in Punta Gorda and the area near Charlotte's Harbor are out of business following Charley's wrath, according to Michael Auer, a customer service relations representative at ATD's Fort Myers, Fla., distribution center. He said those accounts were “completely destroyed and condemned.”
At ATD's Fort Myers facility, Mr. Auer said the building sustained broken windows and signs and downed fences but overall is in good condition.
In central Florida, Patton Tire Inc. in Lake Wales—located 125 miles from the Gulf Coast—lost its roof from Charley's gale-force winds and suffered an estimated $12,000-$15,000 in damage, according to owner Darren Patton. Water damaged a computer balancer, diagnostic equipment in a technician's toolbox and a brake lathe.
“I closed my dealership at noon Friday,” Mr. Patton said, referring to the day the hurricane struck. “Everybody closed at Lake Wales at 2 o'clock. Nobody was prepared. I don't think anyone could be prepared for this.”
Later on that evening, Mr. Patton said he and one of his employees drove to the shop to assess the damage but never made it there because they encountered 10 people stranded along the way with tires punctured from roofing nail debris. He and his tech fixed the flats along the side of the road.
On Saturday Mr. Patton saw his store wasn't hit as hard as some businesses, and he immediately put two compressors on a service truck and a trailer to begin running service calls.
“There's devastation everywhere you look,” he said, noting that 100-year-old buildings and many homes were destroyed. “It's just terrible.”
Mr. Patton's store is an old 1940s-era gas station with a concrete roof and metal beams. He said the actual structure didn't move, but the roof shingles peeled off in one big chunk over the shop and ripped off some of the panels. Right now, the shop's roof has plastic and plywood to cover the openings.
But the roof is the least of Mr. Patton's concerns. He said that since the store reopened Aug. 16, his 10 employees have seen “so many flats, it's unreal” and have worked nearly 12-hour days repairing 150 flats per day.
“I probably only sold 20 new tires,” he said of those first few days. “We usually average about 80-100 new tires a day. That's all we're doing now. It's roofing nails, 90 percent of it. Everybody got their roof or shingles ripped off.”
Many of the cleanup crews have been working in swamps to the east of Lake Wales where transmission lines are located, Mr. Patton explained, saying that much of the tire repairs have been on “tractors, SUVs, passenger cars—you name it, if it's got tires on it, they're having problems.”
Luckily for Mr. Patton, the storm didn't ruin or blow away materials that he is planning to use to construct a new store just a few miles down the road from his current location. The foundation would have been laid the day Charley struck, he said.
In Orlando, Dave Zwalina, owner of Automotive One Inc., said his dealership had no electricity until Aug. 19 and even then the phone lines worked only sporadically. Compared with others, his dealership sustained minor damage to its signage and roof despite several tornadoes in the area that spun off from the hurricane. He estimated that he lost $20,000 from being closed for six days.
Mr. Zwalina said his biggest headaches have been in getting ice, water and gasoline, for which he had to wait an hour and 25 minutes at one of the few open gas stations as the line stretched for miles down the freeway.
In Fort Myers, Joyce Martin, co-owner of Martin's Garage & Tire Center Inc., said her store also lost a roof on a building that houses its garage and part of the roof on a building housing its main office. Martin's Garage closed for a day and a half, and Ms. Martin and her husband worked the weekend following Charley's landfall to buy generators and compressors and clean up debris. She said her home lost some shingles but remained intact.
Since reopening Aug. 16, Martin's Garage has seen more business than a typical August as many people have come in needing tire repairs or new tires, Ms. Martin said. She called Hurricane Charley the worst storm she'd seen in 18 years of operating a tire dealership.
Mr. Benner and Mr. Patton both noted that they were amazed and encouraged by the thousands of out-of-state volunteers who have come to help victims as well as the way their communities have come together to rebuild.
“There are people out cooking in the streets, handing people food, water, whatever they need,” Mr. Benner said. “With any luck, we'll be in shape again.”
“Everybody's really chipping in,” Mr. Patton said. “Everybody's pulling together in Lake Wales. It's really amazing to see the human spirit. It hadn't been broken.”