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Victims haunted by deaths of neighbors, total devastation

Sunday, August 15, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- When Cindy Vallier returned home Saturday after Hurricane Charley, the bodies of the old couple across the road were lying in her front yard, covered in blankets.

Staring at the old man's black wheelchair and twisted walker wedged under her husband's upturned truck, Vallier wonders how she can bear to move back to Crystal Lake mobile home park.

"Every time I walk down here, there's two dead people in my driveway," she said, envisioning the memory that will haunt her. She surveyed the twisted wreckage engulfing her home. It's what is left of her dead neighbors' doublewide trailer.

Crystal Lake, like much of Punta Gorda, is a scene of utter devastation. But like so many in this blessed and cursed part of Florida, Vallier knows she has no choice but to start again where she was.

"That was our home, that was our rental, that was our work truck," the 53-year-old disabled cleaning woman said, ticking off her list of ruined possessions. "That's all we got. I gotta move back here."

'I don't know why'

Vallier's neighbors were among four known deaths in this Charlotte County town nestled along the Gulf of Mexico. The victims' names were not immediately being released.

Vallier said the dead couple's grown son was thrown from the wreckage and was injured. He was found inside a closet of the trailer next door.

Charley's eye came right through Charlotte Harbor Friday afternoon, packing winds up to 145 mph.

Dane Gomez, 28, was renting his parents' old trailer in the Baileyville neighborhood of Punta Gorda. This little uninsured mobile home was his first taste of real independence.

"I called it home sweet home," Gomez said as he combed the rubble in vain for his 3-year-old cat, Oscar. "I don't know why God intended for this to happen. It's not right. It's not fair. How do you get back what you lost?"

Many of those left homeless by Charley were retirees who came to Florida after a lifetime of sweat and toil. They awoke Saturday to find that their toil had only just begun.

Barbara Seaman stood in the wreckage of the clubhouse at the Windmill Village trailer park and gaped.

"This was so pretty," she said, standing by a marina choked with pontoons and pleasure boats.

The 69-year-old retired florist and her companion, Rudy Ricci, 78, returned Saturday to find most of their roof gone and their trailer twisted so badly the doors would not open. As they arrived, a great blue heron landed in the back yard -- waiting for his usual snack of turkey hot dogs.

"Where do we go now?" Seaman asked. "What do we do?"

Off Florida Street, Karen Hull walked through a home littered with decapitated plaster figurines. She and her husband, Ed, had added a living room, a screen porch and a carport to their singlewide trailer in the three years they had lived there.

Now, they are back to square one.

"You know, what's here is the old home," Hull, 50, said with a rueful grin. "It was a nice place."

Her husband, Ed, stood nearby wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt with the inscription: "Life is full of important choices."

Too busy for sorrow

It may be weeks before people in Punta Gorda get their power and water back. It will be much longer before they feel at home again.

Back at Crystal Lake, Vallier recalled the neighbors she lost.

She had cleaned home for the old woman many years ago, and she remembered the lady always tipped her. Vallier's husband, Clint Comstock, would sometimes help the old man, who was crippled with diabetes.

Vallier said the elderly couple had moved away from Punta Gorda to be closer to family. But they moved back about four months ago, because this was where the old man wanted to die.

"He got his wish," she said darkly.

Vallier's husband, who owns a tree-removal company, was too busy for sorrow.

He worked in the blistering sun to move what he could salvage into the only room of his house that survived -- the bedroom. Scattered across the floor were programs from his father's memorial service in 1996.

The verse inside was oddly appropriate:

"God hath not promised

"Skies always blue ....

"God hath not promised

"Sun without rain,

"Joy without sorrow,

"Peace without pain."

He plans to rebuild on the same spot. And, unlike his wife, he doesn't think he'll be haunted.

"Life goes on," he said. "You've just got to get on with it, that's all."


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