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Hurricane Charley

Storm reveals hardier homes

Homes built under tougher standards fared better than mobile homes. But safety isn't always affordable.

By WILL VAN SANT and CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published August 17, 2004

PUNTA GORDA - As Hurricane Charley chewed up mobile homes all around him, Nelson Leidel's deluxe gulffront home faced down the storm with hardly a scrape.

"You are paying for protection," said Leidel, 60, whose 5-year-old, $700,000 house meets the toughened construction code imposed after Hurricane Andrew. He also installed hurricane-proof windows.

"Safe living is like safe sex," he said. "You've got to use protection."

Around the disaster zone this week, nothing better illustrated the gap between the haves and the have-nots than what was left of their homes after Hurricane Charley left. While mobile homes suffered severely, many newer houses and sturdy homes in older, more upscale neighborhoods fared much better.

Less than a mile from Leidel's place, at Biehl's Slip-Not Mobile Home Park, 60-year-old Ann Tollett's mobile home lay in ruins.

Tollet said she understands she cannot afford to live in a home as disaster-proof as Leidel's. But she feels no bitterness.

"I'm not angry," said Tollett, who bought her home in 1972. "A Christian person don't have anger."

Elsewhere in the park, Lois West, a 69-year-old Wal-Mart employee, was cleaning up her mobile home, which she said was worth about $25,000. Though it still stands, the carport is gone and roof caved in.

"A mobile home is not a good home; everybody knows that," she said as her voice rose and her eyes became watery. "But you have it because it's what you can afford."

Charlotte County's 11,611 mobile homes made up about 14.6 percent of the county's housing stock, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. By comparison, the county's 55,122 single-family homes accounted for 69 percent of the county's residences.

It's too soon to say how many homes were damaged, Charlotte County emergency management director Wayne Sallade said Monday. The priority, he said, is to get water and electric service to people.

But to some, the lesson was clear.

"After living in Punta Gorda all my life and having seen what I have seen, I would never own a mobile home," said Edgar Watson, 71, who lives in Punta Gorda's historic district, where damage to old and new houses was generally modest.

A few miles away in Port Charlotte, just off U.S. 41, stands a neighborhood of 1950s- and 1960s-era cement-block houses. Amid a wilderness of felled limbs and uprooted trees, the neighborhood offered a snapshot of the fickleness of the storm, which left some homes wrecked alongside others that suffered only minor damage.

The worst hit in the neighborhood was the cement-block house of Nigel Gentle, 24, and his mother, Beatrice, 59. On Monday, it lay in ruins, the roof caved in.

"We never thought it would hit this house so bad," said Nigel Gentle, whose arms were scarred from pieces of ceiling that fell on him during the storm.

Samuel Serigano's home, built in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew prompted tougher building codes, stood up admirably except for the roof, which the wind ripped up, causing ceiling damage. If parts of his roof had been nailed, rather than stapled, he figures it would have held up better.

"It's about time Florida changed their codes," said Serigano, 77. With a staple-gun, he said, "a guy does a roof in a day. They got no grip. Nothing's holding."

In Port Charlotte, Earl and Ardelle McNabb came back from an evacuation site to find their back patio roof had blown off and landed in the front yard of their single-story, 1958 cement-block home.

"When you look around the neighborhood, you can see why some stood up better than others: lots of add-ons," said McNabb, 66. "They don't build them up to code, they don't get them inspected, then they just blow away."

Still, he said, some things are beyond human control.

"We've got a funeral parlor down the street that doesn't look like it's missing a shingle, and a hardware store that's flat," McNabb said. "It's not all the way they built them. It's the way the wind blows."

* * *

Times staff writer Chase Squires contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 01:03:12]

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