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In Florida, a Hunt for Basics

August 16, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Mary Stewart, who has lost her home, doesn't know where she and her parents, both stroke victims, are going to live. Stewart has no idea if the store where she made $6 an hour will reopen, but Sunday she wanted just two things to be happy.

"A shower and having something cold to drink, that's the biggest thing," said Stewart, who lived in Alta Vista, one of the mobile home parks in Punta Gorda that was hit hardest by Hurricane Charley.

In this once tidy subdivision of about 200 households, including many elderly of modest means, existence has been brutally pared to the bare essentials: finding a way to eat, drink and sleep. Forty-eight hours after Hurricane Charley ravaged much of southwestern Florida, residents of Alta Vista mainly were seeking, and getting, help from their neighbors and families, not official agencies.

Some paused on a blisteringly hot afternoon while cleaning up storm damage to share their feelings. They seemed grateful to have survived one of Florida's most devastating hurricanes intact, even if their homes didn't.

"We made it. Thanks a lot Charley," one family had spray-painted on the plywood sheets that were used to protect the front windows of their stucco-faced trailer. The boards, however, hadn't deterred the hurricane from tearing off the roof.

Stewart had taken her young niece for a stroll through the stricken subdivision, where about half of the single- and double-wide mobile homes had been destroyed or badly damaged. Phone poles dangled at crazy angles, yards were filled with mangled roof panels and some trailers lay in splinters. Power and water were still out.

"It's just like a big giant came through and this was his playhouse, and he didn't clean up," said Hope DiTerlizzi, 12.

"I have no idea what we're going to do," said Stewart, 48, who worked as a cashier at a dollar store. "We're waiting for FEMA to come through. There is nowhere to go."

Mid-morning Sunday, Stewart left for a parking lot where aid workers were handing out free bottled water, plastic sheeting and toilet paper.

Her parents, Archie Russ, 75, and Catherine Russ, 72, remained behind and smoked menthol cigarettes in the remains of the mobile home's porch. A feeble breeze fluttered shredded screens. The glass entry door had been shattered, but the wind chime that was attached to it was unscathed. "Every day a new beginning," the chime read.

"I don't know where we're going to move to," said Archie Russ, a retired welder.

The trailer that Stewart had been renting for $350 a month had a broad gash in the roof, the ceiling was unsafe and much of the carpet had been waterlogged by Charley's rains. Stewart and her parents were to spend Sunday night in a small pop-up trailer that Archie Russ bought four months ago, a purchase his wife and daughter opposed but that seems providential now.

Stewart did not seem disheartened. Her neighbors, she said, had been regularly checking in, asking if they needed anything. John Johnson, from across the street, volunteered to hook up a generator if she bought one. A good Samaritan from Labelle came by Saturday and gave out pound cake, chilled orange juice and water.

She hasn't seen anyone from the state or federal government, she said.

"We're waiting for the Red Cross," Stewart said. "I need boxes to pack up with."

Families in the subdivision get together once a month in the winter for potluck suppers. That helps them get to know one another, including the many owners who don't live in Florida year round.

When Charley struck here, few people were strangers.

"The neighbors were all worried to death I was in there when the storm hit," said Sandra Ricketts, 58, who had fled in her truck accompanied by her two Yorkshire terriers and Dachshund. Ricketts was back Sunday, having bought a small tent to pitch in her front yard. That's where most of her belongings ended up, including a lawn mower and a wicker dinette set. Charley had ripped open her trailer and poured its contents onto the lawn.

"I'm going to sit right here, watch what I got," Ricketts said. "I'm going down to the Home Depot to get a generator, find me a Port-a-Potty, and I'm set."

As the temperatures climbed into the mid-90s in early afternoon, she took her panting dogs into her truck's cab and turned on the air conditioning. The Michigan-born woman who did janitorial work before developing a bad back said a neighbor's son had given her barbecued chicken. Others were stopping by to see if she needed water or food. And the daughter-in-law of Juanita Nelson, who lived across the street, offered to take her in, a generous invitation Ricketts said she refused even though she had no cash or solid roof over her head.

It was in stark contrast, she said, to the welcome she found when she went looking for federal emergency relief workers.

"They never asked me who I was, where I was from, what happened to me," Ricketts said. "They didn't care. They made me feel stupid when I asked if they could loan me a generator. And when I went to see them they were eating, and I wasn't."

But Ricketts said she was doing her best to keep a sense of perspective. "This right here is just things intermingled with other things," she said, eyeing the jumbled heap Charley had made of her home. "My life means more to me, and my dogs."

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