A Model For Recovery

July 13, 2006
Reported by Vince Atkinson

Wednesday 7 News introduced you to Punta Gorda, Florida. Although the city is nearly a thousand miles away from Southwest Louisiana, it is a city very much like Lake Charles. It was also hit by a major hurricane, but with one big difference. Punta Gorda was struck nearly a year before Hurricane Rita made landfall.

7 News is visiting this city for two reasons. First, to find out what type of challenges the future may hold for Southwest Louisiana. Second, to find out what works and what does not after two years into hurricane recovery efforts. Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County Director of Emergency Management said, "Our hand was forced by the impact of that hurricane." That is something that both Punta Gorda and Lake Charles have in common.

Sallade said, "We are about to experience what has come to be known as urban reunion by disaster." Despite any renewal, things are far from "back to normal" in Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda Vice-Mayor Larry Friedman said, "I would venture to say that close to 50% of businesses, primarily the smaller businesses, have still not reopened." The same goes for some area schools. Many Punta Gorda students are still going to class in portable buildings, but the overall hurricane recovery process is going amazingly well.

Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik said, "In some neighborhoods, you will not even know a hurricane ever came." It took about a year after Hurricane Charley before things started to turn around for Punta Gorda, the same point in time that is approaching for Hurricane Rita. So the big question is: how did they make it happen? Kunik said, "We had a total community-wide effort to develop a community master plan. That was unheard of here before. This was funded by the community, not the government." The residents in Punta Gorda put their money where their mouth's were. With cash collected through private donations, average citizens had plans drawn up of what they wanted their city to look like.

Punta Gorda Businessman Rex Koch said, "You must have a back up plan. Otherwise you just sit there and argue with each other." For now, the arguing has been put aside and rebuilding efforts have been placed front and center. Kunik said, "It's not going to happen over night." Rebuilding in Punta Gorda is obvious nearly everywhere you look. It is a city that seems determined to come back stronger, faster, and better prepared for the next storm.

Punta Gorda residents believe the key to a successful recovery is keeping the momentum going. They say that after you let the momentum stop, it is hard to get it back.