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Old Couch a Lifesaver in Trailer Home

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page A01

PUNTA GORDA, Fla., Aug. 14 -- The world went cockeyed here. Fat metal light poles crimped at the center, bowing to the ground like the twisty-neck straws in a retro diner. Couches turned into roof ornaments. Roofs turned into tree ornaments. Flimsy mobile homes twisted up grotesquely or simply imploded, leaving behind chunkily diced piles of someone's life.

The destruction launched by Hurricane Charley against this little town on the hopelessly mislabeled Peace River can overwhelm the senses. Rotting drywall and bright-orange insulation, turning weirdly gelatinous in an unrelenting Florida sun, scent the air with a putrid musk. The streets were soggy obstacle courses of downed power lines, frayed tree limbs and pieces of ruined homes.

Ron Guzman, pastor of Peace River Church of Christ, lifts a toppled lectern in his church in Punta Gorda. Guzman had come to open the doors to provide shelter to his 25-member congregation, but found the building in ruins. (Chip Litherland -- Sarasota Herald-tribune Via AP)

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Mindy Lyles climbed over her uprooted queen palm, reliving each nasty moment of the nastiest storm she had ever seen and looking for the thing that saved her. It was the unlikeliest of life preservers: a stupid, old floral-print couch. But there it was, wet and smelling ripe on a humid morning-after.

Lyles and her boyfriend, Jerry Gelb, had tipped the couch over when the television screen went fuzzy. They could still hear the announcer, and he was telling them the worst: A hurricane they thought was headed for Tampa, the one they hadn't worried about, was headed for them.

They pulled Hammerhead under the couch with them. Lyles doesn't know Hammerhead's real name, just the old man's regular order at the Good Times Bar, where she works. He'd found his way to them, disoriented and frightened, when he was run out of his trailer by police enforcing an evacuation order. He had nowhere else to go but under that couch.

"The ceiling was jumping, and I was praying to my dad -- he has been gone nine years now -- up there," Lyles said, pointing up to the blue sky. "I was saying, 'Keep me safe.' "

The winds were so fierce that even the gangly queen palms in her yard, beloved for their gymnast's flexibility, bent parallel to the ground at the height of the storm, then gave up, lifting their roots from the ground, and laid down. They piled up behind ruined trailers, still strangely beautiful with their bright red fruit, but on their way to dying.

Lyles thought she would die, too. It was a feeling she couldn't imagine when the storm was way off in the Caribbean or when it was sliding by Key West. Even as it moved up the Gulf Coast, she was setting out peppers and ham and potato chips. She poured beers for Hammerhead. They laughed and called it their "hurricane beer." It was going to be a party.

None of them should have been there. The trailer parks were supposed to be empty. The radio kept telling them to go. But they stayed. And all around them, in the aluminum-sided houses, along East Henry Street, there were others dipping under kitchen tables or cowering in bathrooms.

Only a couple of hundred yards away, Robin Murphy watched from a second-story window of a big, brown apartment complex. The storm that made the day a horror for Mindy Lyles was almost a kind of Technicolor reality show for Murphy. She watched from her window, dry and feeling secure, as the storm shredded the trailers below her but barely dented her home.

The women inhabit two different worlds of Punta Gorda poverty: The trailer world and an alternate kind of existence, a government-subsidized life in a structure built to withstand unearthly winds. The two worlds coexist across from each other all around this town of 14,000. Same winds. Different result.

"I guess it's just the luck of the draw," said Murphy, who moved out of a trailer a few years ago. "And what you can afford. I'm never going back to the trailers."

Already, the sharks were out. The man on the radio was warning about "hurricane gypsies," unscrupulous rip-off artists who migrate to disaster areas and take cash to fix roofs quickly, then disappear without hammering a nail. On the roadside not far from Lyles's tattered trailer, less than 24 hours after Charley passed, signs announced: "We buy storm-damaged homes. As is."

In front of Murphy's complex, Louisa Munoz, 63, pushed her 22-month-old granddaughter's stroller through ankle-high water. She stooped and filled gallon juice jugs with water the color of chocolate milk. She'll use it to flush her toilet. Like all of Punta Gorda, she has no water. She has no power. But she has a roof that is still whole, and she feels lucky.

The puddle she was working ran from her world into the trailer world, to the front yard of Hank and Elizabeth Jones. There wasn't much worth saving there -- a few CDs, a damp Bible and Elizabeth Jones's old yearbook with the word's "Screaming Eagles" on the front -- but they were willing to fight for it.

Hank Jones hammered away at the roof of his parents' home next door. His fingernails are chipped, and his hands are rough. His parents bought his trailer for him. It cost $1,500, not a lot as houses go, but more than he could afford.

He might have insured it, but it cost too much. Everything seems to cost too much. The day before the storm, he tried to get some cash. But the bank closed at 1 p.m. He was wondering how he would get by with the few bucks in his pocket.

Up on the roof, he could see over the top of a whole field of sagging trailers. His landscape had been transformed. But he wanted it, somehow, to go back to the way it was. He just did not know how.

His son, 20-year-old Anthony, in a cutoff T-shirt, slipped a rope over the top of the debris pile that was once their home. He hoped to find something useful below. He yanked the rope with his pickup truck. But the rope slipped off. Nothing moved.

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