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Bush Promises Quick Hurricane Relief

The president tours areas devastated by Charley. The death toll rises to 16, and nearly 1 million residents are without power.

August 16, 2004|David G. Savage and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — President Bush vowed Sunday that the government would send aid quickly as he surveyed the devastation from Hurricane Charley, the most powerful and damaging storm to hit the state in 12 years.

"You know the job of the federal government and the state government is to surge resources as quickly as possible to disaster areas. And that's exactly what is happening now," the president said as he stopped to shake hands with residents who had ridden out the storm here. "A lot of people's lives are turned upside down."

The number of confirmed deaths in Florida rose to 16, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said. "We may find more as we go along," she told CNN's "Late Edition."

The deaths followed the track of the storm, whose winds reached 145 mph, as it made landfall about halfway between Sarasota and Naples on Friday, then headed northeast and into the Atlantic Ocean near Daytona Beach.

State officials said four people died in Charlotte County and one each in DeSoto, Sarasota and Lee counties, along the west coast. Five people died in Polk County and two in Orange County in central Florida. Two also died in Volusia County on the east coast.

By Sunday, the much-weakened storm had moved up the Eastern seaboard, bringing rain and wind to the Massachusetts coastline before blowing past the Canadian Maritime provinces and out to sea.

In Punta Gorda, insurance adjusters set up makeshift offices, and industry officials estimated that the damage to residences alone would be between $5 billion and $11 billion. That estimate did not count losses to businesses or to cars and boats, the officials said.

If the estimates are accurate, Hurricane Charley would be the state's second-costliest storm. When Hurricane Andrew struck south of Miami in August 1992, it took 26 lives and cost nearly $20 billion in insured losses.

That storm also took a toll on the popularity of then-President George H.W. Bush because federal aid was seen as coming too slowly. His son, the current president, said he would try to prevent a repeat of such complaints.

"We're moving a lot of aid very quickly. You can ask the governor whether or not he's satisfied with how fast the aid is moving," the president said, referring to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Asked what lessons were learned from Hurricane Andrew, Bush replied: "The lesson is, respond quickly. And we are responding quickly. And we're surging equipment."

He responded to a question about a "political component" behind his visit by saying, "If I wouldn't have come, they would have said, 'He should have been here more rapidly.' "

Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, had said Saturday that he would not visit the state immediately out of concern that his entourage would disrupt relief efforts.

State officials said Sunday that 25 of the state's 67 counties were eligible for disaster relief. Probably hit hardest by Charley's 145-mph winds, though, was Punta Gorda, a quiet community of about 15,000 residents in Charlotte County.

Signs of the massive relief effort were seen throughout the area.

On Interstate 75, which runs along Florida's west coast, long convoys of orange tree-removal trucks rumbled southward toward the disaster zone.

Among the items arriving Sunday were 38 trucks of ice, 19,300 prepackaged meals and 480 portable toilets, government officials told Associated Press.

Power company employees by the hundreds repaired downed lines. Statewide, more than 980,000 residents were without electricity, and officials at Florida Power and Light Co. said that restoration of service to Punta Gorda could take weeks.

Charlotte County schools, which had opened last Monday, were expected to be closed for the next two weeks, officials said.

Police were out in force to keep out gawkers who slowed traffic and hampered relief work. Local authorities told them to stay away.

"The people who are driving around looking, they need to know there is no gas for them to get," said Lt. Donna Roguska of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Department.

Bush's 2 1/2 -hour visit to Florida began in Fort Myers, where he boarded a helicopter to fly over the areas that took a direct hit. There were neighborhoods where nearly all the structures were damaged. Blue tarps hung on the tops of many homes.

Some waterfront residences had lost sections of their coral-colored roofs. In the nearby town of Port Charlotte, some homes had crumbled to their foundations.

At the Charlotte County airport, which sustained severe damage in several places, Bush was greeted by Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), whom he nominated last week to head the CIA, and Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), whose district includes most of the hardest-hit areas.

Accompanied by the governor, the president drove through Punta Gorda. Some residents shouted "Four more years"; another called out, "Viva Bush."

"He can come visit anytime. He doesn't need to wait until there's a hurricane," said Ron Hill, who described himself as a "very conservative Republican."

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