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Hurricane Charley

As survivors wait in heat, hope wilts, tempers fray

The power's out for days, maybe weeks. Lines for everything are long. And officials worry what will happen to survivors' patience.

Published August 17, 2004

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Death toll at 19; hundreds of thousands without power; thousands seek assistance

PUNTA GORDA - On Monday, the third morning after Hurricane Charley laid waste to Southwest Florida, the people who survived the storm began to wonder if they would survive its aftermath.

For every commodity - ice, water, federal aid - the lines are long. The days are hot and humid. There's no power. Air conditioning is a dream. Cars have no gas. Tempers are frayed. Rumors are widespread. So are mosquitoes.

"I'm afraid that more people will die in the recovery than died from the impact," fretted Charlotte County emergency management director Wayne Sallade.

Officially, Charley's death toll went up by two Monday - a car crash in Osceola County and a heart attack in Hardee County - bringing the total number of dead in Florida to 18. Officials still had no count of how many people remained unaccounted for.

But patience and civility were both in danger of becoming casualties as well.

Charlotte sheriff's Maj. John Davenport said hundreds of National Guard troops and law enforcement officers from across the state are bracing for the worst. Looting has been held to a minimum so far, Davenport said. But he is worried about domestic violence, vigilante justice and neighborhood disputes spiraling out of control.

At one point Monday, law enforcement officers used a taser to subdue a man who was determined to cross a bridge onto Fort Myers Beach, even though the area is still closed.

Three officers pulled the man from his minivan, which carried three children, prompting a bystander to yell, "Leave him alone, man, he's frustrated."

Charley's 145 mph winds peeled away the veneer of civilization and left behind a far different world.

Just ask Barbara Winslow, who was sitting in a van with her fiance and five antsy children in a thunderstorm, waiting for diapers, food and water.

"After you live through it, you can't imagine how desperate you get," the Punta Gorda resident said. "You don't have anything. If the end of the world came tomorrow, this is what it would look like."

Relief workers are doing their best to provide comfort and hope. They're handing out free water, ice, Gatorade, sodas, bread, pet food, diapers, clothes, shoes and blankets. Church groups have poured in to help, including Mennonites from Georgia and Amish from Pennsylvania.

More than 76,000 meals and snacks have been served, with thousands more available from federal, local and private agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday. FEMA announced it had allocated $10-million for mobile homes to meet a request for housing for 10,000 people.

Mary Ann Gasper, better known around Arcadia as "Mother Mary," knows that without the aid now surging into Arcadia, recovery might be impossible.

"If these people hadn't come in," she said, "there'd be a lot of crying babies and hungry old folks."

While federal officials have rushed to provide assistance, actual help from the government seems elusive at times. Dozens of people visited a FEMA station that opened Monday in Port Charlotte, where each one got a slip of paper with a toll-free phone number. They were told to call and talk with a counselor.

The catch: Few victims have working phones. Cellular service is spotty at best. Those who did manage to get through said they were put on hold for more than an hour.

"We were told we were going to get a check right away," said Charles Romano, 77, visibly frustrated. "As you can see, FEMA didn't do nothin' for us."

Some of the people who showed up at the FEMA office expected far more from their government.

"Is this where they are giving out the free generators?" Steve Barker asked. "They said on the radio if we come to FEMA they give you a generator."

The answer was no, a crushing blow for Barker, whose Port Charlotte home is sheltering three families, despite having no power and no water.

Ron Marion, hobbling along on a walker, went to the FEMA center to get food, water, anything for the 31 elderly and mentally disabled residents at a Punta Gorda assisted living center where he is the property manager.

He got the slip of paper, too. Afterward Marion sat in the sun, smoking a cigarette and fuming.

"When you try to call, you can't get through," he said. "When you call the Sheriff's Office, they say, "Call FEMA.' Why are they sending us to FEMA when they can't do anything?"

Marion said he has been using candles to provide light at night, but he worries about starting a fire. And he worries that some of his bipolar clients are going to run out of medication and become agitated.

"I've got one woman, she keeps saying she wants to go home for Christmas," Marion said. "She doesn't know what's going on, where she is."

Sallade, Charlotte's emergency director, said he worries about the toll that living for weeks in homes without air conditioning will take on the county's many elderly residents, or what could happen while they're cleaning up storm debris in the broiling sun.

"My biggest concern is my seniors and their exposure to the elements," he said. "There is no way to take this 90-degree weather and make it go away."

Some people were desperately trying to get back to their homes Monday, only to be thwarted by authorities.

Barrier islands near Fort Myers remained closed to all but emergency vehicles, frustrating residents who wanted to check on damage to their homes. Lee County officials said Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island would reopen this morning for residents only.

On the mainland, as storm survivors began venturing out of their damaged homes in search of supplies, they started crashing their cars. Without power, Didio said, traffic lights were not working.

One destination is finding a place to gas up. Monday morning a line of 50 cars snaked out of the Hess Express in Port Charlotte. One customer was Sam Lindsey, 73, who drove 5 miles from Punta Gorda and waited 90 minutes to fill his tank and a 5-gallon jug to power up a generator he bought Monday at Home Depot. He's sheltering eight people in his house.

Throughout Florida nearly 700,000 people are still without power, and some may have to wait until the end of the month before they can turn on their lights again.

As of Monday, Progress Energy Florida had about 298,000 customers without electricity, and customers in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties may have to wait until Aug. 24. Tampa Electric Co. was expecting to have fewer than 10,000 customers without electricity, while Florida Power & Light said it still had about 313,000 without power.

Getting information like that out to the survivors is proving to be a challenge. Charlotte County officials plan to print fliers and distribute them by hand, street by street. Also under consideration: airplanes towing banners.

The survivors had their own low-tech communication strategies: signs spray-painted on plywood, mattresses, even the backs of political signs.

Some were seeking generators or chainsaws, but most simply spray-painted the names of their insurance company on the front of their homes. One homeowner wrote this message on a large piece of aluminum in the roofless dining room: "Not part of this house."

Preliminary estimates from the insurance industry set insured losses between $6-billion and $14-billion, which makes Hurricane Charley the second-most expensive natural disaster to hit Florida, after 1992's Hurricane Andrew.

The thousands of insurance adjusters spreading out through the storm-ravaged areas Monday know not to make any promises about how many days or weeks it might take to process claims.

"We don't want any unrealistic expectations," said State Farm spokesman Tom Hagerty.

Claims for unemployment are likely to shoot sky-high, thanks to Charley. Susan Pareigis, director of Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation, said early estimates show 120,000 people will be left jobless. Pareigis said her office was setting up an unemployment office for people to file for benefits, but the checks could take three to four weeks.

Even before the AWI office opened, there was a line of people waiting to fill out claim forms. Cheri Foley, who stood in line holding her 10-month-old daughter, said Charley had cost her her job with an architectural and drafting firm. The office is damaged and there's no power - and every day's mail brings more bad news.

"Everything's kind of in limbo now," she said. "But the bills keep coming in."

* * *

Times staff writers Brady Dennis, Jeff Harrington, Alisa Ulferts, Louis Hau contributed to this report, which used information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 01:14:28]

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