Florida Starts Massive Hurricane Cleanup

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As the remnants of Hurricane Charley disintegrated off the New England coast on Sunday, Florida residents began the massive task of cleaning up from a storm that state officials estimated caused damages as high as $11 billion for insured homes alone.

Florida officials raised the death toll attributed to Charley from 13 to 16. No details on the additional deaths were immediately released.

President Bush flew over the most heavily damaged areas in a Marine helicopter Sunday before landing in this retirement haven of 15,000 people, which was devastated by Charley. The storm left thousands temporarily homeless.

"All the clothes that I've got now is just what I'm wearing now," one resident, George Nickols, told the president.

Lenida Caponera, who fled her home on Easy Street in Port Charlotte as the storm approached, returned to find it completely destroyed.

"You can go from house to house, it's all this way," she said as she picked up a pillowcase, one of the few things on her lawn she could find that was not ruined.

Chad Maxwell shoveled up soggy ceiling tiles and shattered glass Sunday from the floor of the real estate office where he works in Punta Gorda. Looking at the coffee shop next door, which lost its second floor, and a florist with only one wall standing, he described his impression of downtown: "Beirut."

"It looks like a bomb zone. Everything's gone. Everything's tore up," he said.

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The Rev. Leroy Martin set up two dozen chairs and laid Bibles on them outside his small Punta Gorda church, unsure whether the darkened building was safe for services.

"I guess it is at a time like this when you realize the significance of spiritual values when everything else has blown away," Martin said.

The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared 25 counties eligible for disaster aid after the worst hurricane to hit Florida in a dozen years.

From his helicopter, President Bush could see debris from trailer park homes strewn across green fields and roofs that had been torn off hangars at Charlotte County Airport, where he was briefed by officials coordinating recovery efforts.

Asked about why he made such a quick trip to Florida in this election year, Bush said: "Yeah, if I didn't come, they would've said we should have been here more rapidly."

As a weakened Charley churned up the East Coast and was downgraded Sunday to a tropical depression, emergency officials pronounced it the worst hurricane to wallop Florida since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in insured property losses.

The luxury vacation haven of North Captiva Island, which can be reached only by air and boat, was divided in two by Charley's storm surge, creating a new inlet that appears to be several hundred yards long, Lee County spokesman Pat O'Rourke said. The island's main road was submerged, but the extent of damage to homes was not determined.

State officials said it was impossible to estimate the number of missing people, and downed power lines and debris made the task of searching for bodies "tedious and dangerous," said Mike McHargue, director of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

An initial damage estimate of $5 billion to $11 billion was based on the value of homes and insurance policies in the storm's path, said Tami Torres, a spokeswoman for state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Uninsured homes, business losses and damage to automobiles were not included.

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."

Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

Charley cut northeast across Florida, hit open ocean again and made landfall again at South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region Saturday. The weakened but still-powerful system moved into North Carolina and up the eastern seaboard.

At 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, Charley's center was east of Massachusetts' Cape Cod and moving northeast at about 30 mph. It was downgraded from a tropical storm Sunday, with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph.

The storm knocked out power in the Carolinas and caused some flooded streets and power outages in Virginia, but caused little damage when it passed up the East Coast.

What little strength remained dumped heavy rain in New England Sunday morning, especially coastal areas. Up to 3 inches of rain fell in parts of eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In Florida, Charley knocked out power to an estimated 2 million people as it hit southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, pummeling the coast with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of sea water of 13 feet to 15 feet.

The storm devastated citrus groves, and could have a "huge impact" on this year's crop, said Andy LaVigne, chief executive of the trade group Florida Citrus Mutual.

The American Red Cross set up more than 250 disaster relief shelters in Florida and 40 in the Carolinas. Charlotte County officials requested help in obtaining necessities such as towels, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes for volunteers. Supermarkets gave away free water in five cities from Fort Myers to Wauchula.

Three hospitals in the county sustained significant damage, Sallade said. Officials at Charlotte Regional Medical Center said they were evacuating all patients Saturday, and spokesman Josh Cutter said Sunday that the hospital hoped to reopen within three weeks.

"This place just isn't safe," said Peggy Greene, chief nursing officer. She said windows were blown out, part of the roof was blown off, and there was no power or phone service.

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson warned of price gouging, and said arrests would be made if instances are discovered.

"People need to watch out for the scam artists," Bronson said at a state briefing. "They're out there. They always are."

Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth named storms of the Atlantic hurricane season were out at sea Sunday. Tropical Storm Danielle formed Friday and developed into a hurricane Saturday but was several days from land.

Tropical Storm Earl had sustained winds of 45 mph Sunday and was centered about 25 miles southwest of Grenada, prompting storm warnings for islands in the southeastern Caribbean Sea.


On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov