Charley victims wait in long lines

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- Victims of Hurricane Charley sweated through long lines Monday as they desperately sought out essentials such as hot meals, showers and drinking water three days after the furious storm left their homes in shambles.

Barbara Winslow and her fiance were sitting in a van with five antsy children in a thunderstorm waiting for a chance to collect diapers, food, water and ice at a National Guard comfort station.

"After you live through it, you can't imagine how desperate you get," she said. "You don't have anything. If the end of the world came tomorrow, this is what it would look like."

For Winslow and many others, the relief over having survived started to be replaced by the reality of a long rebuilding process.

Some of the 15,000 residents of Punta Gorda waited 30 minutes for ice, water and portable commodes set up by the National Guard.

Volunteer Jessica Byrnes held 4-month-old Brody Keener near an electric fan connected to a generator. The baby, dressed only in a diaper, managed a slight smile.

"He can't keep anything down, it's so hot," said Alyssa Thibodeau, who was baby-sitting her cousin as his parents sought supplies. "We keep giving him ice water and washing him. He's hanging in there."

Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte appeared to be among the hardest-hit areas, and 25 of Florida's 67 counties were designated federal disaster areas. At least 17 people in Florida were killed by the storm, and officials estimate it caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes alone. Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

About 890,000 people remained without power Monday, and officials estimated it could take weeks to get it fully restored. About 2,300 people stayed in shelters, and Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown said 11,000 have already applied for disaster aid.

Brown said it could take several weeks to find all the victims, and officials still had no count Monday of how many people remained unaccounted for, a mission complicated by toppled power lines, spotty phone communication and roads littered with debris. However, early estimates of hundreds of people missing are probably inflated.

"That's an issue of cousin Vinny in Ohio calling down to find out how his brother-in-law is doing and he's not where he's supposed to be," said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County's director of emergency management. "Odds are he's not missing at all."

Frustrations began to emerge on a typically muggy day as people complained about the lack of power and access to their neighborhoods. Some Sanibel Island residents accused city officials of creating a double standard.

"They're allowing the elite of Sanibel on the island, and the rest of us can't even look," said Richard Strong, a 49-year-old house painter.

Gasoline was precious, with lines of 40 cars at some stations. Lines also snaked through parking lots at food distribution sites.

"I just want something to eat," house cleaner Willie Mae Robinson said as she waited for canned goods and ice with several dozen others at an old train depot in Bowling Green, where temperatures soared into the high 80s. "I have something for today but I don't have anything for tomorrow."

Robinson said she couldn't get around because the storm dropped a tree onto her car Friday.

In Fort Myers, pickup trucks carted away palm fronds and the twisted remnants of metal gutters. Near the city's beach, bulldozers plowed down streets covered with an inch-thick layer of sand that looked like snow.

In other areas, overturned RVs were the only thing that remained in some parking lots. People returned to what was left of their homes to find what looked more like a junkyard. The main streets in some towns were so devastated that they looked like they were vandalized.

At a Red Cross shelter in Englewood, about 300 people woke up to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and milk. Jo Trail was staying there with her husband and 10-year-old grandson after their Arcadia mobile home was destroyed as they rode out the storm underneath a mattress.

"It took the false teeth right out of my mouth," Trail said, showing her gums. "It took the glasses right off of my face."

After slamming into Florida with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of sea water of 13 feet to 15 feet, Charley hit open ocean and made landfall again in South Carolina. It moved into North Carolina and up the eastern seaboard as a tropical storm before being downgraded to a depression.

Federal emergency officials said the state has requested housing for 10,000 people, and nearly 4,400 National Guard troops have been activated. About 4,000 insurance adjusters were on the way. The American Red Cross had established eight mobile kitchens and five feeding centers capable of serving 9,000 meals a day.

Law enforcement officials said Monday there had been no arrests for looting but six people had been arrested in DeSoto County for violating the curfew.

In the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, patience was more than a virtue.

"I guess if I were 30 years old and in business, I'd be screaming," said 69-year-old Mike Cuscaden, a retired insurance executive who awaited permission to return to his home on Sanibel. "What can you do?"

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