Hurricane devastates once-tranquil Fla. town

Hurricane Charley

August 15, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- She knew Hurricane Charley had devastated her neighborhood and that the two trailers she owned were probably destroyed, but Cindy Vallier wasn't prepared for the shocking sight in her yard when she returned home late Friday.

Two elderly neighbors were dead in her front yard, lying swaddled in blankets amid a twisted mix of metal and wood.

"There they were, covered in blankets in my yard by the time police let me back to my house," Vallier said. "She was up against a truck, and he was up against his wheelchair. They were nice people. They shouldn't have died like that."

The couple, both in their 80s, were killed when the hurricane passed over the Crystal Lake neighborhood and its 145 mph winds picked up their double-wide mobile home and hurled it across the street against a one-ton dump truck parked in Vallier's yard.

The truck, belonging to a family friend, had also been blown over on its side.

The couple's car was still in their driveway across the street but was flipped on its top.

The only thing left where their mobile home used to be were the cinder blocks it had rested on. The only recognizable item among their belongings was a neatly folded black wheelchair lying amid the tangled debris in Vallier's yard.

The Charlotte County sheriff's department confirmed the couple's deaths but did not release their names.

Charley made its landfall about 20 miles south of here, roaring up through Charlotte Harbor, the usually sheltering waters of the inlet magnifying its intensity. A wind meter at a local hospital recorded the storm's speed at 173 mph before it broke.

Ground zero

Punta Gorda, a retirement and vacation town of 16,000 people living mainly in trailer park communities, is a normally tranquil spot known for its "Old Florida" look, with brick streets, tin-roofed homes and towering royal palms. Now it has become Charley's ground zero.

The once charming streets are littered with hunks of tree trunks, and downed power lines blow like snakes in the sea breeze. Many of the trees are bereft of leaves or fronds.

For motorists, the roads seem more like a slalom course presided over by traffic officers. While residents picked through their ruined homes, searching for personal keepsakes, the rest of the town had a ghostly mien. Businesses were closed, hotels empty.

Even in areas where the buildings were relatively untouched, the yards were still littered with roof shingles and aluminum siding. An odd, but common, sight was lengths of aluminum wrapped around palm trees.

Crystal Lake, where Vallier lived, was one of 31 trailer park communities in the area torn apart by the storm's fury.

Some homes like Vallier's were flattened, leaving nearly nothing salvageable.

"These places just look like they exploded," said Vallier, 54, a former housekeeper who has been on disability for nine years.

Unlike her neighbors, she left the neighborhood before the hurricane struck.

She owns two trailers here and used one as a rental. Both were destroyed, and Vallier has no insurance.

"I'm just numb. I can't eat; all I can do is drink water," she said. "When you think about it, I just lost everything I ever had."

Still, she is thankful she didn't suffer her neighbors' fate.

Down the street, Cesar Peres, 59, ignored the evacuation orders from police and hunkered down in his trailer home through the storm. It was ripped apart.

"It was scary -- I'll never do that again," he said.

"I'm a Vietnam vet and this scared me more, only because I wasn't expecting it to be so powerful," he said.

Hiding in the trailer's kitchen, Peres desperately leaned his 243-pound bulk against the kitchen door for nearly an hour as the wind threatened to blow it in and expose him to the storm's wrath.

Searching for victims

The Associated Press reported 10 deaths in Charlotte County, where Punta Gorda is located, with the death toll expected to rise. A spokesman for the sheriff's office, Robert Carpenter, said his office would not provide an exact number.

Carpenter said that two semitrailer trucks were brought in yesterday morning as temporary morgues, and a team of 25 medical examiners is on hand.

Sixty body bags had been ordered as a precaution, and search teams were picking through the rubble of trailer courts and condominiums, accompanied by cadaver dogs, in search of corpses.

He said it was impossible to know how many people stayed home during the storm and how many evacuated. Many of the trailers are frequently empty, used occasionally by vacationers.

"Basically, we've got 31 search and rescue teams going through 31 flattened mobile home parks," Carpenter said.

Triage centers to minister to the injured were set up throughout Charlotte County yesterday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because all three area hospitals were heavily damaged by the storm.

`We weren't ready'

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