Horror stories never-ending in aftermath of Fla. hurricane

At least 17 dead, number of missing still unknown

August 17, 2004|By Alfonso A. Castillo | Alfonso A. Castillo,NEWSDAY

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - The line seemed to form just as soon as the pair of women took seats behind two small desks in a parking lot next to the office of Peeples Agency.

Joan Aucoin, who has worked for the real estate insurance agency for 22 years, reached over two packs of Doral cigarettes on her desk to grab another claim form, in a bin under a roll of paper towels.

"OK, your total loss is ... ?" she asked an elderly man at the front of the line.

"Everything," he responded.

She and the rest of the small staff here would go on to hear stories like this all day yesterday. One by one, they recorded longhand on sheets of paper the horror stories of hundreds of residents whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Charley.

While the women worked outside, Vernon Peeples, whose father, Vernon Sr., built the office in an old service station in 1952, knocked down crumbling pieces of the ceiling, through which small beams of sunlight peeked, and swept up the rubble so his clients could come in from the sweltering heat.

On the job

After spending much of the weekend trying to patch up his own nearby home, which suffered significant damage in Friday's storm, Peeples opened on time yesterday, and his entire staff showed up to work.

"Now it's time to do this," said Peeples, who was unshaven and wore a dirty dress shirt drenched in sweat, work boots and a bandana around his neck. "This is the business we're in. I gotta take care of these people."

Authorities raised the death toll from Charley to 17 yesterday, and 25 of Florida's 67 counties were designated federal disaster areas. Officials estimate the storm caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes alone. Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

Electricity still off

About 890,000 people remained without power yesterday, 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 yesterday 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.

Storm's ground zero

In the commercial district in Punta Gorda - ground zero for the Category 4 hurricane and its 145-mph winds - most of the businesses were closed yesterday, with damage ranging from shattered windows and dangling store signs to those ravaged beyond recognition.

But a few members of the business community opened up shop yesterday, reaching not only for an elusive sense of normality but looking to play a role in the rebuilding of their community.

A handwritten cardboard sign outside an Ace Hardware store listed its inventory of emergency supplies. "Please be patient and bear with us as we adapt, just as you are," the sign said. "God bless you."

Gregg Marrapodi sat shirtless yesterday in his office at Gregg's Automotive Repair Center, surrounded by two plywood walls, leafing through a wet and tattered address book of suppliers.

"This community has been great to me," said Marrapodi, 52, who moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., 20 years ago. "I will not turn my back on this community at all."

At 4 a.m. the night the storm struck, Marrapodi was back at his shop, trying to patch up the roof so he could open on time yesterday. Though his primary business is fixing cars, he said his top priority now is getting some fuel into his one gas pump outside to provide for the hundreds of emergency vehicles on the streets.

"By Thursday, I'll be fixing cars," he said. "It's what I do."

Cold beer, ice water

Nearby at J.D.'s Bar, a spray-painted wood plank leaning on a wall said "BAR OPEN." Inside, owner Karen Duquemin poured cold beer and free ice water to a steady stream of customers. "We got a new skylight," one patron joked about a hole in the roof.

"It's horrible what they went through," said Duquemin, adding that the bar's most important role since the storm has been to reunite friends and family who had been unable to communicate with each other. "It's been quite an emotional meeting place at times," she said.

Conversely, other small-business owners had no say in whether to open yesterday. There was nothing to open.

Nothing is left

Converted from what was the oldest Baptist church in Charlotte County, built in the 1830s, Elizabeth Picerno's pride and joy, her business, is now one of the most utterly devastated structures in the area.

The only thing left standing is the wooden sign out front, bearing the words "Elegant Lee's Bridal and Formal Wear." The towering steeple near the sidewalk is now just a disorderly pile of two-by-fours, burying what had been her showroom.

"I can't see a dress, I can't see a dummy," said Picerno, 40, gazing at the wreckage. "It's just broken my heart. It really has."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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