The rodeo community, like much of southwestern Florida, experienced the wrath of Hurricane Charley on Friday the (Aug.) 13th nonetheless when it pounded the 6,800-seat Arcadia rodeo arena.
Estimated winds of 140-plus miles-an-hour destroyed the arena's covered south-side stands and much of the covered north-side stands. Twisted metal, shredded canvass and splintered wood filled the middle of the arena.
Charley, according to the most recent figures, killed 23 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, including a $150 million hit to the state's citrus crop. It was the worst hurricane in terms of destruction since Andrew hammered the Miami area in 1992.
"It's worse than anything I've seen in 35 years of me being here," said Elton Langford, who is the stock director of the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, which will celebrate its 77th year in March. "It's about like it was when it came through down in Miami, but we have never had anything in our area like that. It's bad."
Because of the devastation, the PRCA Division II Xtreme Bulls event slated Oct. 8-9 in Arcadia has been cancelled, as well as the Arcadia fall rodeo set for Nov. 20-21.
"Even if we had it rebuilt, there are people around here with tops ripped off their homes, water damage, trailers turned upside down," said Langford, who lives about 12 miles from Arcadia. "We lost the Turner Agri Civic Center, which served as an evacuation center. A tornado or hurricane caved half the roof in on it. There were about 1,400 people in there, but fortunately there were just three minor injuries."
The Turner Agri Civic Center was less than two years old.
"I have a friend of mine who works for me who was in there [civic center] and he said that the roof was, like, breathing. It looked like it was coming to life. He said you could see the steel I-beams starting to twist, then it just fell."
The town's water tower blew down and an estimated 85 percent of the homes in and around Arcadia were damaged or destroyed. One person in DeSoto County (33,000 pop.), which includes Arcadia, is listed in the state's fatality count.
Fences were damaged and countless power lines knocked down. A week after the hurricane, thousands of people in Arcadia and the surrounding area were without power.
Orange groves make up one-quarter of the county. "The oranges looked like marbles laying in the middle of the rows," Langford said. "It sure put a damper on fruit crops this year."
An old shed, Langford said, was all he lost in the storm.
"The Lord blessed me in more ways than one," said Langford, who's married with three children. "My little area maintained some damage, but as far as my house, the good Lord had his hand on my little old place. I lost my shed, but it needed to be torn down anyway so it did me a favor."
Langford drove his family 45 miles east to his in-laws in order to avoid the storm's fury.
Another committeeman for the Arcadia rodeo, wasn't as lucky. Rusty Cox, who lives about half a mile from the rodeo grounds, lost a chunk of his roof.
"If you see my roof, please send it home," joked Cox, who is the secretary on the rodeo's board of directors. "It's never been gone more than a day or two. I'm going to put a picture of it on a milk carton."
Cox, a former deputy sheriff, owns a concrete block house, and a 25-by-35 section of roof blew off the front end of the home and landed elsewhere in one piece.
"My wife, children and I were in the house and we never heard it come off," he said. "Now I have a new sun room that I wasn't planning on. The main thing is my family is fine, and just like this rodeo arena, we will go on and have a 77th and 78th annual rodeo if I have anything to do with it. We are going to make every effort to have the March rodeo."
Cox has been part of the Arcadia rodeo for 26 years and spends a lot of time making the arena better.
"I love the sport of rodeo and love what we are able to do for the community," Cox said. "We have insurance, so I would rather that any donations go to the people in the county because there are a lot of people a lot less fortunate.
"I joke about having a 25-by-35 section of my roof gone, but there are people without a floor much less a roof."
The Arcadia rodeo has historically been a big charitable contributor to the community, giving money to a variety of causes such as scholarships, people in need and to youth rodeo.
According to Langford and Cox, that philanthropic effort will prevail with the continuation of the historic-rich rodeo.
"We are just so thankful we have our health and we are all doing pretty fair, but there are a lot of people in the community who aren't, who don't have anything," Langford said. "I think our committee would agree with me that any donations should be made toward the community."
Donations can be made by calling the Emergency Operations Center at 863.993.4831.
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