Bush visits Fla. as cleanup from Charley continues

During Punta Gorda trip, president tells residents federal help is on the way

August 16, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - As residents hardest hit by Hurricane Charley's devastating wallop began to clean up amid sweltering heat, President Bush flew here early yesterday to assure storm victims in this vacation city that federal assistance was already on the way.

From his helicopter, Marine One, Bush could see debris from trailer park homes strewn across fields and roofs that had been torn off hangars at a nearby airport.

"A lot of people's lives are turned upside down," the president said after walking along a street, consoling storm victims. "It's going to take awhile to rebuild it."

The most powerful storm to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Charley swept through the southern Gulf Coast and Central Florida on Friday with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of seawater of 13 to 15 feet - causing billions of dollars in damage and killing at least 16 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun helping arrange emergency housing for about 2,300 displaced people and may set up tent cities. The American Red Cross said that by today, it will begin preparing and delivering 9,000 meals a day to residents in Charlotte County.

"This is the largest American Red Cross response since 9/11," said J.B. Hunt, a local Red Cross coordinator, who added that 4,000 Red Cross volunteers had arrived in Charlotte County as of yesterday morning.

For victims of Charley, help cannot arrive fast enough. For the third night in a row, most of the county and all of Punta Gorda were without electricity, water or telephones, and it could be weeks before those services are restored.

Children returned to school last week from summer vacation. But yesterday the school superintendent suspended classes for the next two weeks because nearly every school building in the county was damaged. The three hospitals in the county were also closed, and triage centers were set up to handle emergencies.

As the storm weakened off the coast of New England, emergency officials continued going door to door throughout the county looking for victims of the hurricane. Because the storm turned so late and unexpectedly struck this area directly, most residents did not have time to evacuate.

Looking for victims

Officials have said hundreds of people are unaccounted for but had no official count yesterday. As they continued to check each house for victims, officials painted large red X's on the homes, with the date and the initials of the agency that checked the place to ensure homes were not searched multiple times.

County officials would not say yesterday how many people died in the storm but suggested that the death toll would be far less than what was first feared after the hurricane struck.

"If the total is what I believe I am hearing it will be, in a storm of this magnitude that we went through in this county, it's a miracle," said County Manger Wayne Sallade.

In the areas heaviest hit by Charley, residents began sifting through what remained of their homes and trying to make arrangements for somewhere to sleep yesterday in 95-degree heat.

Caught off guard

Bruce Grunwald, a disabled Vietnam veteran, lives in a mobile home community where every home sustained damaged. He was caught off guard by the storm and found it too late to evacuate.

Grunwald hid in a crawl space underneath his home with his dog, Buck. When he finally crawled back through the 1-by-2-foot opening, the front wall and roof were gone.

"I was just watching the storm out the window from my couch, and then I saw the wind shift and everything started blowing right toward my trailer," said Grunwald, 54. "That was enough; I crawled down in this little space. I could hear the wind tearing up my house."

Yesterday, Grunwald was grabbing his clothes, wringing them out and hanging the articles on a clothesline in his yard. He went back for his fishing poles.

"That's all I got left," he said. "I figure they'll come in here and bulldoze this whole place, this whole trailer park because there is so much damage."

Across the street from Grunwald lives 86-year-old Ruth Broadstone. Friends were helping her move soggy furniture out of her heavily damaged trailer. Broadstone found her most cherished possession, a 50th wedding anniversary photo of her and her late husband, Chester. It was underneath the bed. But she can't find the crucifix that hung on the wall above the bed.

"I want to get on my hands and knees and look for it, but you can't without getting hurt with all this stuff broken," said Broadstone, a retired school cafeteria cook.

Broadstone said her home is "condemned" and that she is thinking of moving closer to family in Illinois. For now, she'll stay with friends in nearby Port Charlotte.

People picked up the pieces and contemplated what to do next yesterday. Many did not have insurance. Others did but weren't sure they wanted to stay.

"This is home; we're not going anywhere," said Dave Harrison, 38, who used a minivan and a chain to pull a huge, uprooted oak tree off the front of his house. "I'll just be happy to move this tree and use my front door again."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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