AFTER HURRICANE CHARLEY
By Mark Long and Allen G. Breed ~ The Associated Press
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- Rescuers rummaged through a chaotic landscape of pulverized homes and twisted metal Saturday, racing to tally Hurricane Charley's "significant loss of life" and help thousands left homeless by its vicious winds and rain. Thirteen people were confirmed dead.
As a weakened Charley churned up the East Coast and was downgraded to a tropical storm, newly sunny skies revealed its destruction in Florida, where emergency officials pronounced it the worst to wallop the state since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in insured property losses.
"Our worst fears have come true," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who surveyed the devastation by helicopter. The Category 4 storm was expected to cost Florida "at least several billion dollars," said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.
State officials confirmed 13 deaths based on reports from medical examiners. The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County.
Wayne Sallade, the county's director of emergency management, had reported 10 deaths, but the state said it had confirmed only four as of Saturday night. Orange, Polk and Volusia counties each reported two deaths, while Desoto, Lee and Sarasota counties reported one death each.
State officials said it was impossible to estimate the number of missing, and that searching was a slow process in some areas. Downed power lines and debris made the work of searching for bodies "tedious and dangerous," said Mike McHargue, director of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Thirty-one mobile-home parks in Charlotte County sustained major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, said Bob Carpenter, a sheriff's spokesman. He said teams were sent to each park to search for bodies and survivors, but "we just couldn't get the vehicles in -- there is so much debris."
Deputies were standing guard over some bodies because they were in areas not immediately accessible by ambulances. Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.
In Florida, extensive damage was also reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.
Several medical centers were badly damaged, forcing hospital officials to evacuate patients to other facilities.
"Where do we go now? What do we do?" said 69-year-old Barbara Seaman, standing by the shell of a demolished building in Punta Gorda's Windmill Village Trailer Park.
The storm and its 145 mph winds knocked out power to some 2 million homes and businesses as it crossed from the southwest coast at Punta Gorda to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach. Some 1.3 million remained without power Saturday afternoon, emergency officials said, and downed lines slowed some rescuers.
Several southwest Florida communities were without running water, state environmental officials said.
President Bush, the governor's brother, declared Florida a federal disaster area. The president planned a visit today to survey damage, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, in a statement, offered "heartfelt sympathies."
As recovery efforts began, Florida officials warned against price gouging and said violators would face heavy fines.
The state's emergency response team was delivering more than 1.8 million gallons of bottled water and 2.9 million pounds of ice to damaged areas.
Deputy state health officer Bonnie Sorensen said three medical disaster teams, with 35 to 50 health-care workers, were in place and another five teams would arrive to help those in need.
Thousands of tourists on late-summer vacations were caught in the storm's messy aftermath. More than 1,000 people spent the night at Orlando International Airport, where debris littered two runways and lashing winds tore the roofs off three terminals and shattered two giant glass panels in the main terminal. Scores of flights were canceled.
Hundreds of miles north, Charley's course took it across open ocean, missing the westward curving shore of Georgia. It made its second landfall on South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region, which was nearly empty after a mandatory evacuation of some of the area's 180,000 tourists and residents.
National Guard troops were on duty Saturday in North Carolina, where a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for vulnerable coastal areas hit less than two weeks ago by Hurricane Alex. In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency.
But Charley caused far less serious damage north of Florida. About 200,000 electricity customers in the Carolinas lost power, and there were isolated reports of flooding and wind damage.
By 11 p.m. Saturday, Charley's maximum sustained winds had fallen to about 40 mph, barely strong enough to be a tropical storm. It was centered about 30 miles south-southeast of Ocean City, Md., and was moving northeast about 35 mph.
Charley-related weather was forecast as far north as Massachusetts, the New York metropolitan area and swaths of northern Pennsylvania. All of New Jersey was under a flood watch Saturday afternoon.
The American Red Cross set up more than 250 disaster relief shelters in Florida. Staffers and volunteers were providing dry clothing, meals, first aid and counseling.
In Orlando, central Florida's major theme parks reopened Saturday. At Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios opened, but staff shortages kept Animal Kingdom closed. Fifty inspectors at Universal Studios Orlando checked all the rides and ruled them safe.