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Charley Leaves at Least 13 Dead

Thousands Homeless In Florida

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page A01

PUNTA GORDA, Fla., Aug. 14 -- Hurricane Charley raced up the Atlantic seaboard Saturday, leaving a trail of demolished homes, flooded streets and uprooted palm trees, forcing thousands from their homes and killing at least 13 people.

In Florida, where 145-mph winds flattened trailer parks and tore roofs off hospitals and office buildings, emergency officials described the storm as the worst since Hurricane Andrew, which caused a record $28 billion in damage when it smashed through the southern part of the state in 1992. At least three cities were without running water, and 2 million homes were without power.

David J. Migneault sits in what remains of his law office in the Professional Building in Punta Gorda. The hurricane ripped off an outside wall of the building. (Julie Fletcher -- Orlando Sentinel Via AP)

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Evacuation centers were packed in the central Gulf Coast counties, and authorities grimly searched door to door through devastated neighborhoods for those who had not fled or survived.

"It's our Andrew," said Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County, which felt the brunt of the hurricane Friday afternoon when the Category 4 storm made an unexpected right turn onto the southwestern coast of Florida after gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico. "The destruction is catastrophic."

The epicenter of the hurricane's fury was here in Punta Gorda, a quiet retirement community of 14,000 people, many of them living in flimsy trailer homes along the creeks and streams that feed into Charlotte Harbor. A day after the storm hit, dazed residents were picking their way through the debris, as volunteers swept away broken glass and shards of metal. Telephone lines were down, and there was no water or power.

"Have you ever seen such a mess?" asked Ginny Fay, 88, a retiree living in a trailer with an adult son, as she surveyed a street full of leveled homes and ripped-up palm trees. "I don't know what we are going to do, where we are going to go. I don't know anything."

President Bush declared Florida a federal disaster area, and federal authorities sent a mortuary team to assist with the dead.

The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), surveyed the devastation by helicopter. Visiting relief workers in Punta Gorda, he defended scientists and local officials from criticism that they had miscalculated the path of the hurricane, which had been expected to hit the more heavily populated Tampa Bay region nearly 100 miles to the north.

"God doesn't follow the linear projections of computer models," Bush told reporters here outside the emergency management center, whose roof caved in during the hurricane. "This is God's way of telling us that He's almighty and we're mortal."

After racing across central Florida, past Orlando, where it left 150,000 people without power and damaged 70 percent of the private planes parked at the city's executive airport, Charley blew out into the Atlantic, skirting Jacksonville on its way north. By the time it made its second landfall, in South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region, and moved into North Carolina, it had been downgraded to a topical storm.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency. Forecasters predicted stormy weather as far north as Massachusetts as Charley's winds calmed to about 40 mph at 11 p.m. Saturday as it moved over the Atlantic about 30 miles south-southeast of Ocean City.

President Bush announced that he will visit Florida on Sunday to demonstrate that "our federal government is responding quickly to provide aid." Political analysts noted that his father, George H.W. Bush, is widely believed to have lost votes in the 1992 presidential election because of a lackadaisical federal response to Hurricane Andrew.

Campaigning in Oregon, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said that he had directed his activists in Florida, which is a key battleground state, "to try to turn their attention to helping the recovery efforts." He said he will not immediately go to Florida because he does not want to distract police from their storm-related duties.

Florida officials said they were calling up 5,000 National Guard troops to prevent looting and to assist in cleanup efforts, along with thousands of firefighters and law enforcement officers. They warned against price-gouging and imposed nighttime curfews in some of the most seriously affected areas.

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