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Hurricane Charley

Soggy, dented, dark - but still home

For thousands who refuse to be uprooted, nostalgia, friendship and necessity have proved more powerful than a mighty hurricane.

By LEANORA MINAI
Published August 17, 2004

PUNTA GORDA - Chris Cannon was desperate.

Hot, smelly and exhausted, the 63-year-old nurse crouched near two leaking spigots outside a neighbor's house and splashed the slow dripping water against her chest and armpits.

This bath would have to do. Cannon and her husband, John, don't have power or water in their 1892 fisherman's cottage. The second-floor windows were blown out in Hurricane Charley's fury, and now they sleep under a mosquito tent with a gun nearby in case looters come.

"It never occurred to us to leave," said Mrs. Cannon, a seasonal resident who drove 32 hours from New York after the storm to be at the cottage. "You want to be here."

Like thousands of residents with homes in the path of Hurricane Charley, the Cannons have decided to live in an unlivable house. People are barely sleeping, but if they can, it's often on soggy carpet or in easy chairs. They're living on Fritos and getting pecked by insects.

But some stay to fight off looters. A sign in a Port Charlotte neighborhood reads, "Looter Will Be Shot." Others stay because they don't have a job or money for a motel bed. Most simply stay because it's home.

"You know what?" said Darlene Bishop, a 15-year resident of Biehl's Slip-Not mobile home park. "Everything you own is right here. It's not just material possessions. It's your home. Your heart."

Bishop, 50, also won't abandon her friends. A third of the residents in the park's 100 mobile homes have stayed. And she can't leave Penny, her mixed breed terrier.

"I got no place else to go," said Bishop, a bartender at the mobile home park's watering hole, Biehl's Slip-Not Lounge, famous for 75-cent draft beer and broiled hamburgers.

Flashlight in hand, Bishop, whose nickname is Sarge, sleeps on an easy chair facing the door. On Sunday night, she woke up four times when she heard something outside. Her roof is still intact, but the windows are shattered and sunlight streams through a wall, pierced by flying two-by-fours.

Life has been rugged. Bishop brushes her teeth with bottled water, spits in a cup and pours the remains in the toilet to flush.

"You don't want to waste your water," she said.

On Monday, Bishop sat in her stifling mobile home and chatted with neighbor Bill Page, 55, an unemployed handyman. Sweat dripped from Page's chin. He wore jeans, soaked at the knees, and cowboy boots. His chest was bare, and ear phones, piping the latest radio news, dangled from his head.

Talk centered around what to do next. Both are worried the state will change building codes that would price them out or force the owners of the mobile home park to sell. Bishop and Page don't want to leave. They would rather patch the holes and put on a new roof.

"It's the wealthy folks that seem to control what happens," said Page before getting up to help a neighbor fix a roof.

At the Cannon cottage in Punta Gorda's historic district on McGregor Street, John Cannon, 63, a carpenter by trade, screwed down a portion of the tin roof that peeled back from the wind's force.

The couple adore the yellow A-frame house with teal trim - and a view of the Peace River - that has been their winter retreat since they bought it 16 years ago for $29,900. They have slept in it during the slow restoration, even when there was no floor, only joists.

So Hurricane Charley's aftermath hasn't scared them away. They power up a generator for only coffee and a vacuum. An unloaded black handgun rests on a yellow dresser near their bed. The bullets are next to a Big Ben clock.

"I'm scared to death of guns," said Mrs. Cannon, as she swept piles of glass and dirt and leaves and bits of wool insulation that stuck everywhere.

The couple had two treats Sunday: lasagna meals-ready-to-eat delivered by relief workers, and a visit by President Bush, who was surveying the damage in their neighborhood.

"I told the president we're peeing in the bushes," Mrs. Cannon said. "He put his arm on his chest and said, "Not these Bushes, I hope."'

At one point Monday, John Cannon took a break from fixing the couple's cottage and sat on the porch. He started crying, wondering what would become of his neighborhood known for its shady oaks and mahogany trees.

"How do you have a historic district when you don't have any historic houses?" he asked.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 01:22:29]

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