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Florida Reeling From Damage

Hurricane Charley leaves at least 13 dead and hundreds missing. 'Paradise is no longer,' says the police chief of devastated Punta Gorda.

August 15, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Hurricane Charley raced north Saturday through the Carolinas and into Virginia as it weakened into a tropical storm after cutting a broad swath of destruction across Florida that left at least 13 people dead and thousands homeless.

About 1.3 million people remained without electricity. Entire counties were without power. Hundreds of people were unaccounted for. Most of the storm's damage was in southwest Florida, where it came ashore off the Gulf of Mexico.

Charley's most appalling blows were felt in Punta Gorda. The area's numerous mobile home communities, many of them retirement villages, were devastated. Search squads canvassed 31 wrecked mobile-home parks to hunt both the living and the dead Saturday. The federal disaster mortuary team arrived by midmorning.

There were at least four deaths reported in Charlotte County. Officials there said that so many homes had been damaged that there could be more deaths they weren't aware of, or survivors trapped under debris.

Dazed by Charley's might, Punta Gorda residents were trying to face the truth that their pretty coastal town, for all practical purposes, had been wiped out. "Paradise is no longer," said Police Chief Chuck Rinehart. "Our historic area is pretty much destroyed. Out commercial area is pretty much destroyed."

It was the most powerful storm to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Charley stormed onto land here Friday as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 160 mph. It knocked out Charlotte County's three hospitals, damaged the sheriff's office and part of the emergency operations center, and shut down firehouses and police stations. A bridal gown shop, a Toyota dealership and scores of other businesses along Tamiami Trail, Main Street in this part of Florida, were rubble.

There was a gaping hole in the county courthouse where Charley's winds brought down part of the brick facade. At the airport, the storm tore open hangars and damaged aircraft inside.

"Our worst fears had been realized," Gov. Jeb Bush said after viewing the Punta Gorda area from the air. He said he saw "an entire community totally flattened." Rebuilding will cost "billions," he said.

Punta Gorda was left without water, electricity and telephone service.

President Bush, the governor's brother, will inspect the damage and recovery efforts today. On Friday, he declared Florida a disaster area.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, offered "heartfelt sympathies," and urged his supporters in the state to volunteer their help.

In the Crystal Lake subdivision, with more than 100 mobile homes, residents said Charley had killed Gordon and Joanne Hawkins, a couple in their 80s, who were in poor health and decided to ride out the storm at home with their son.

"Their trailer was on the left side of the street and the storm blew it on the right side," Henrietta Ogle, 56, said.

Their son was pulled alive from the ruins and airlifted to a hospital. The trailer, demolished by the wind, and piles of their belongings lay beside a tipped-over truck. In the heap was Gordon Hawkins' wheelchair.

Her own trailer wide open to the sky, Ogle was trying to load a widescreen TV into a U-Haul truck Saturday. She said she was going to live with her son.

Bob Carpenter, spokesman for the Charlotte County sheriff's office, said it was hard to be precise about casualties because many homeowners were snowbirds and lived here part time.

One complex of 1,200 homes, Maple Leaf Estates, was battered by the hurricane, but it was not yet clear how many of the owners, most of whom are Canadian, were at home. "We don't know if half of them are back in Canada," said Carpenter.

From Tampa Bay to the Florida Keys, sheriffs' offices and fire rescue departments reacted quickly to Punta Gorda's needs, sending hundreds of rescuers.

Gov. Bush, who declared a state of emergency even before Charley and another tropical storm struck land, said the National Guard had dispatched 1,500 soldiers and that 5,000 more were being called up. A special federal agency that helps process the bodies of disaster victims sent 25 technicians along with refrigerated trucks for any corpses that might be found, Carpenter said.

The governor and Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who accompanied the governor on his visit, said they would do all they could to help.

"Right now, people are devastated, people are discouraged, people are frustrated," Brown said, speaking to local residents through the media. "I want to tell you: The sun will shine again."

Some who ignored the evacuation orders from local officials and stayed home thought they were doomed. A resident of a 1920s house in Punta Gorda's center said in a local radio interview that as she hid in a closet, she could feel the wind whistling up through the floorboards and lifting her in the air.

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