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Hurricane Charley

If it's in town, it's on 41

Without signs or working signals, Punta Gorda's main drag has turned into the place to obtain or offer supplies, information and solace.

Published August 18, 2004

PUNTA GORDA - You find almost anything on U.S. 41.

A yellow bulldozer and blue dump truck sit ready for rent. Men in big trucks sell chain saws. Women in orange vests direct long streams of drivers to free water and ice. Missionaries pray for the lost and battered.

And on Tuesday, word spread that the Hooters girls would be in town on U.S. 41, serving "naked" chicken wings to relief workers.

"We're just waiting on the refrigerator truck," said Robert Cassetta, a Hooters employee at the "Wings on the Move" trailer.

Before Hurricane Charley ripped through the area, residents traveled U.S. 41, the city's main artery, to get to work, shop for a new car or grab a slice at their favorite pizza joint.

But the 3-mile drag is now a trail of sorrow and hope. Scores of people are flocking to it, searching for basic supplies, volunteering to help others or snapping a souvenir photo of the devastation.

"Everything's on 41, and then everybody tells you where you need to go," said Cheryl Martinez, 44, who has been sleeping in her car with the air on at night because the side of her mobile home caved in.

Drivers in air-conditioned cars and sweaty work trucks sit bumper to bumper, choking a road that has no traffic lights and in many cases, no street signs. Traffic eases through intersections without a scratch.

For now.

"People will get short-tempered," said Punta Gorda police Chief Charles Rinehart.

"They're going to get mad. There's going to be road rage."

Marie St. Georges, a 27-year-old nursing assistant, found help from a motorist this week on U.S. 41, a.k.a. the Tamiami Trail.

She was stuck in traffic in Port Charlotte with the window down, when a man shouted over to her.

"If you need something," he said, "go get it in Punta Gorda."

So St. Georges drove south on U.S. 41 and found the Convoy of Hope, a Christian ministry with a semitrailer in a Chevron parking lot. The convoy has distributed 30 truckloads of water, food and other supplies since it arrived soon after Charley hit.

St. Georges took home nonfat dry milk and fortified chicken flavored rice-soy casserole.

"I hope it tastes good," she said Tuesday.

As St. Georges walked away, a semitrailer pulled into the parking lot and people cheered.

The contents: water. Volunteers, however, were hoping for a variety of supplies.

"I apologize," shouted Doug Dreyfus, a 36-year-old jewelry store owner from Miami who was helping unload food and water.

Dreyfus drove from Miami to help, but had no idea where to volunteer. He hit U.S. 41, saw the semitrailer and stopped.

"This could have been any of us," Dreyfus said. "It could have been my aunt in Venice or my cousins in Tampa."

Three women sat on the ground near Dreyfus, holding hands in prayer. "Blood of Jesus," one of the women said, rocking back and forth, her eyes closed.

Nearby, past a downed 30 mph sign, a leaning stop sign and heaps of rubble, people pulled up to a chain saw stand in a Golden Corral parking lot.

Richard Johnson, 60, had three oak trees to cut. He was shown a 22-inch chain saw. Cost: $527.51.

Johnson didn't blink and handed over a credit card. "The good thing about this is FEMA said they'll pay you back for it," he said.

The next customer wasn't so lucky.

Sean Norton, a 31-year-old delivery man for Schwan's Foods, needed a saw chain. He had been cutting a tree for his grandmother when "the chain just went into pieces," he said.

Norton drove up with a $50 bill ready to buy two chains, but the salesman didn't have his size.

A little south on U.S. 41, Ohio brothers Joe and Dave Manley parked a truck with 35 generators in front of a crushed pizza shop near a sign that read, "Sorry Charley, We Are Not Chicken of the Sea."

The Manley brothers got to town Tuesday and were selling generators out of the back of their truck for $200 more than they paid, they said.

Their Coleman and Troy-Bilt units ran $690 to $1,170. They showed customers a field report from a state investigator who visited Tuesday morning to make sure the brothers weren't gouging people.

Later that day, another state investigator, Wade Merritt, drove up and again checked the brothers' paperwork. Merritt said the state has chased off a few vendors for selling $450 generators for $1,100. He left the Manleys to make a sale and drove away.

Dean Meyer, 77, a retired funeral director from Punta Gorda, pulled out his checkbook.

Meyer and his wife, Dolores, haven't had electricity since Charley tore a hole in their roof and ripped off most of the red tiles. Their new generator won't power the air conditioner. But they don't mind.

"We can sit out on the lanai and drink that cold beer," Dean Meyer said.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 23:56:10]

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