Bush Vows Rapid Aid to Hurricane Victims

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Residents left homeless by Hurricane Charley's 145 mph winds dug through their ravaged homes on Sunday, sweeping up shattered glass and rescuing what they could as President Bush promised rapid delivery of disaster aid.

With temperatures in the 90s and humidity that made it feel hotter, people waited with carts in long lines to buy ice. Supermarkets gave away water in five cities as just under 1 million people remained without power and 2,300 stayed in emergency shelters.

"It's as close to hell as I can think of," said Khoum Khampapha, a resident of Easy Street in Port Charlotte, as he looked around his neighborhood of gutted homes. "It's just breathtaking."

As the storm weakened off the coast of New England, Bush surveyed the devastation in Florida, where the storm caused billions of dollars in damage and killed at least 16 people.

In and around Punta Gorda, trailer after trailer lay toppled. Others were blown apart entirely, exposing interior walls that had been pushed down flat, with doorways leading to nowhere. Other rooms stood, but without ceilings or roofs to shelter them from the open sky.

Shards of wood and metal lay scattered about the green yards and floated in blue swimming pools that were filled to the brim by rainwater.

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. Downtown "looks like a bomb zone," he said, surveying the coffee shop next door, which lost its second floor, and a florist with only one wall standing.

"Everything's gone. Everything's tore up," he said.

Emergency officials pronounced Charley the worst hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in insured property losses.

The hardest-hit areas appeared to be the retirement community of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County, though federal officials expanded the disaster aid zone to 25 counties on Sunday.

From his helicopter Marine One, Bush could see debris from trailer park homes strewn across green fields and roofs that had been torn off hangars at Charlotte County Airport. He consoled storm victims in Punta Gorda.

"All the clothes that I've got now is just what I'm wearing," resident George Nickols told Bush during the president's 2 1/2-hour visit.

The president promised rapid assistance for Florida, where officials estimated damages of up to $11 billion to insured homes alone.

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

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending teams of medical, urban rescue and communication workers; at least 60 semitrailers containing cots, blankets, meals, portable toilets, wash kits and other necessities; and truckloads of water and ice.

FEMA said the state has requested catastrophic housing for 10,000 people, and more than 4,000 National Guard troops have been activated.

"It's going to be awesome - shock and awe - that's our goal," said Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother.

J.B. Hunt, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the agency had established eight mobile kitchens and five feeding centers that will be capable of serving 9,000 meals a day by Monday.

"This is the largest Red Cross response since Sept. 11," she said.

Officials have said hundreds of people were unaccounted for but still had no official count on Sunday. The search for missing people was slow in some areas because downed power lines and debris was making the search dangerous, law enforcement officials said.

Charlotte County Chief Deputy John Davenport said the search of mobile home parks was complete and crews were proceeding to check houses.

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

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's Grand Strand resort region. It moved into North Carolina and up the eastern seaboard as a tropical storm before being downgraded to a depression Sunday.

The remnants of Charley dropped rain across the Northeast and whipped up choppy seas on Sunday, but caused little damage as the storm sped toward the North Sea.

Officials were still assessing the total damage caused in Florida. An initial estimate of $5 billion to $11 billion was based on the value of homes and insurance policies in Charley's path, state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said. Uninsured homes, businesses and cars were not included.

Heavy damage was reported on the Gulf Coast barrier islands.

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.

Access to Sanibel, with about 6,000 residents, and Fort Myers Beach, with about 7,000 residents, remained cut off as officials assessed the damage.

The destruction was also felt inland. In the rural city of Arcadia, Art and Edwyne Partaka considered themselves among the lucky ones in their mobile home park, where most of the more than 100 homes were destroyed. Their enclosed porch and utility rooms were blown away, but most of their home was still intact.

"We didn't expect to see anything when we came back," Art Partaka said. "We just thank God he spared most of our trailer."

Charley's destructive winds were irregular. Inside a Port Charlotte mobile home, a china cabinet had its doors blown open, but none of the contents were broken. Outside, the hurricane dragged a palm tree a short distance, leaving a gouge in the soil. When the winds passed, the tree was still standing upright but in a different spot.

In Daytona Beach, Barbara Kotik had tried to protect her car from the trees around her home by parking it at a gas station. She returned after the storm to find the twisted metal framework of the gas station's roof wrapped snuggly around the Chevrolet.

At least five hospitals were damaged. Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda evacuated all patients Saturday, and planned to stay closed for as long as three weeks.

State officials warned of price gouging, and promised to arrest offenders. The state had received about 400 complaints of price-gouging as of Sunday, and officials warned people not to pay cash for repairs.

"People need to watch out for the scam artists," said Florida Agriculture & Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson. "They're out there. They always are."

Already, garishly colored T-shirts proclaiming "I survived Hurricane Charley" had popped up for sale.

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 and was centered about 90 miles west of Grenada Sunday afternoon.


On the Net:

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