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Hurricane Charley

16 confirmed dead as aid comforts survivors

Searches alleviate officials' fears that even more had been killed. Meanwhile, President Bush tours the region, and 25 counties are now disaster areas.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, CHASE SQUIRES and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 16, 2004

[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
"I lost my job and my home all in one day," said Cecilia Carr, 55, as she retrieved items from her home in the Crystal Lakes mobile home park in Punta Gorda.

PUNTA GORDA - Florida officials combed through miles of mind-numbing debris Sunday and raised Hurricane Charley's death count from 13 to 16 - easing fears that dozens of bodies might remain beneath the rubble.

Meanwhile, rescue workers scrambled to assist the living. Trucks laden with mobile kitchens, generators and portable toilets poured into the wasteland of Charlotte County, which bore the brunt of Friday's vicious storm. National guardsmen and sheriff's deputies took positions to foil looters. President Bush toured the devastation to lend what comfort he could.

"Nearly everybody here that I've talked to had evacuated, as the state asked them to do and therefore, the loss of life was minimized," Bush said after a motorcade through Punta Gorda. "Too many people lost their lives, but nevertheless, it was not as significant as it could have been."

Florida's worst hurricane in 12 years, Charley will be remembered in Tampa Bay as a fickle monster that finally veered away. Less fortunate areas are still reeling.

* State officials pegged property damage at $5-billion to $11-billion. That estimate included only insured property, so actual losses are higher. One sad reality involves thousands of mobile homes leveled or damaged as Charley tore from Fort Myers to Daytona Beach. Many mobile home owners can't afford insurance and have been left with their barest possessions.

* The Federal Emergency Management Agency, stung by criticism of slow response during Hurricane Andrew, declared 21 counties in Southwest and Central Florida eligible for disaster relief, bringing the total to 25. Sunday's efforts, which focused on Charlotte County, included 30 mobile kitchens, 170,000 instant meals, 3.6-million pounds of ice and 1.9-million gallons of water. The American Red Cross dispatched about 400 people to run mobile and stationary kitchens - the largest Red Cross mobilization since Sept. 11, 2001.

* More than 4,000 Florida National Guard troops and 600 state law enforcement officers have been deployed for security. Several counties have established nighttime curfews. Charlotte County has roadside checkpoints to keep out gawkers and looters. "If you don't live in or belong in Charlotte County, you will not be allowed in," sheriff's Lt. Donna Roguska said.

* About 900,000 people remained without power early Sunday. Many will regain power today, a Progress Energy spokesman said, but some parts of Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties may remain dark for a week. State officials said Charlotte County and a few other hard-hit areas may lack electricity for two weeks.

* The Florida Department of Education said Charlotte County schools would be closed for up to two weeks. Double sessions may be necessary because some schools were so severly damaged. Schools in De Soto County will be closed from one to two weeks, and for one to two days in Orange and Volusia counties.

In money terms, the hurricane did the most damage in the wealthier, more populated environs of Orange County, where state officials put the dollar figure at $3.2-billion. But the human toll fell hardest in Charlotte, a region of middle-income retirees, fragile mobile homes and quiet streets.

On Sunday, people gathered at the East Side Baptist Church, a small brick church surrounded by devastation. There were no sermons or collection plates; just prayers and stories.

"I live across the bridge at Harbor Heights," said Mike Thompson, 54, "Or, I used to."

He and his wife, Susan, had huddled in a bathroom with their two cats as their house disappeared around them. They lost nearly everything.

At one point, President Bush passed by the church and flashed a thumbs up.

Bush had flown into Fort Myers Sunday morning, along with his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush and FEMA director Mike Brown. A helicopter ride took them north across the devastation.

Bush then switched to a motorcade through Punta Gorda, stopping to talk to residents, telling them "there's a lot of supplies surging this way."

"I think it's terrific, and I'm so glad he's come to the heart of it," said Brenda Brundy, whose neighborhood got socked. "He's right here on an ordinary street."

Asked if some might view his trip as political, Bush replied: "And if I didn't come, they would have said he should have been here more rapidly."

Charlotte officials said they have searched the county's 31 mobile home parks that hold 15,000 homes, many of which were leveled. Deputies are now checking another 7,000 individual mobile homes that are not located in parks, as well as damaged homes.

They found no new bodies, said county emergency preparedness director Wayne Sallade. Official state counts put Charlotte's death toll at four, but Sallade declined to specify a number - only that it was fewer than 10 and less than he expected.

"If the toll is what I believe I'm hearing, with a storm of this magnitude, it's a miracle."

Sheriff's Maj. John Davenport said two men who appeared to be looters were arrested overnight Saturday and charged with violating the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. One looting target was the Charlotte Harbor Fire Department, which lost its computers sometime during the night. The fear of looting is so widespread, many residents are staying in their damaged homes to protect their valuables.

At Harborview Park, Vietnam veteran Gary Snyder drank a can of Miller High Life and said he was prepared. "If I see 'em, I'll shoot 'em," he said. "They're gone. I'll tell 'em I had a flashback."

Charley, a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 145 mph, did not generate the huge storm surge that had been predicted. That helped the upscale barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva to fare better than their inland neighbors. Some homes lost rooftops, but few lost walls. "Overall, we've not had the major structural damage, the surge damage, nor the fatalities, but we have extremely heavy vegetation in the street," said Judie Zimomra, Sanibel city manager.

The hurricane did punch a new pass, several hundred yards long, splitting North Captiva Island, where posh homes can only be reached by private boats and planes.

Gov. Bush visited inland counties that were hit hard by Charley, including De Soto, Hardee and Polk. At Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland Sunday afternoon, he surveyed a supply hub where hundreds of crates of water, ice and ready-to-eat meals were arriving by truck and airplane. They will be doled out across the state where needed.

"This is the beginning of a long, long effort," Bush said. "I can assure you that the communities that have been impacted are going to restored, and in my opinion, will be better off after having gone through this, than prior to Hurricane Charley's arrival."

The start of a new work week, the opening of schools in some counties and the beginning of early voting before a statewide election pose new challenges in the hardest-hit counties. Child care centers will be closed, ATMs will still be down, and thousands of people will have no job to go to because businesses were destroyed.

"Today it's ice, water and where I'm going to sleep," Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said Sunday evening. "By Monday, it's "I'm not going to get a paycheck on Friday.' "

To speed up unemployment compensation claims, Florida will open a one-stop mobile unit today in Port Charlotte. The state also plans to waive the legal requirement that a person be without work for at least seven days before filing for unemployment.

Michael Bolch of FEMA warned storm victims against con artists who ask for money to handle a disaster claim. FEMA does not charge for that, Bolch said. "If somebody asks you to send them a fee . . . that is a scam."

Federal officials have now declared 25 of Florida's 67 counties as disaster areas, eligible for aid: Brevard, Charlotte, Collier, De Soto, Dixie, Duval, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Monroe, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Polk, St. Johns, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia.

Pasco, which had no damage from Hurricane Charley, was on the list because counties that incurred costs related to evacuations can apply for FEMA assistance, said Pasco Emergency Management Director Michele Baker. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said Pinellas and Hillsborough counties could also expect similar reimbursement once paperwork is processed.

As of Sunday night, state officials listed 16 confirmed storm-related deaths: One each in Sarasota, Lee and De Soto counties; two in Volusia and Orange; four in Charlotte; and five in Polk. Florida Highway Patrol officials attributed a traffic death in Osceola County Sunday to the storm, because his car hit fallen trees, but state officials did not include that death in the official count.

So far, the highest number of deaths linked to the hurricane was in Polk County. Charley's sudden shift across Central Florida caught many Polk residents unprepared, Sheriff Lawrence Crow said. Most people kept hearing on TV, "It's going to hit St. Pete!" So they did not take preparations seriously enough, Crow said.

"One thing I have learned about storms is they never hit where they say they will hit."

Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Will Van Sant, David Karp and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 16, 2004, 01:20:21]

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