PUNTA GORDA, Fla., Aug. 15 -- On any other summer Sunday, it would have been the perfect day for a little boating on the Peace River -- the kind of day on which President Bush might have suggested a fishing expedition to his brother the governor.
But on this Sunday, just two days after Hurricane Charley ripped across this coastal community, not a single boat was visible as Bush flew overhead. And rather than speak of fishing, the president and his brother discussed death and destruction, rebuilding and recovery.
Hurricane Charley Hits Florida: Hurricane Charley hit Florida on Friday with more force than predicted, leaving thousands homeless.
Charley Leaves at Least 13 Dead (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
Old Couch a Lifesaver in Trailer Home (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
For Thousands, Shelters Become Home (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
North Carolina Town Hit Hard Last Year by Isabel Is Luckier This Time (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
Arrival Of Charley More Fizzle Than Drizzle (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
Forecast: Plenty of Activity On the Weather Blog Front (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
Storm Prediction Improving but Not Perfect (The Washington Post, Aug 15, 2004)
Fla. Begins Recovery From Deadly Storm (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
For Devastated County's Retirees, a Paradise Is Lost (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
Everything Must Go (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
Calm Befalls the Storm (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
"We choppered over and saw the devastation of this area. A lot of people's lives are turned upside down," the president said during a brief visit to some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods on the Gulf Coast. "We've got ice and water moving in. Trailers for people to live in are moving in. The state is providing security so that people can have peace of mind that their neighborhoods will be safe. There's a lot of compassion moving in the area; the Red Cross is here."
With Gov. Jeb Bush as guide, the president saw the devastation wrought by Hurricane Charley, pledging speedy relief to a state that still smarts from the slow response by his father's administration to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
"What I'm telling you is that there's a lot of help moving into this part of the world. It's going to take a while to rebuild it," he said. "But the government's job is to help people help rebuild their lives, and that's what's happening."
Bush described the response by local, state and federal emergency officials as a "surge" of relief. After declaring the state a federal disaster area on Friday, he made no major announcements Sunday and said he was awaiting a damage tally. "Jeb estimated billions," he said. "We'll see."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said it was "appropriate" for the president to visit what he called a "national disaster area," though he acknowledged the trip was likely to pay political dividends for Bush in the politically important state, which remains "split down the middle."
Bush's Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, said he would not visit the area immediately because he did not want to divert police from helping in the recovery.
Making his 25th trip to Florida, Bush was asked about suggestions the tour was about Campaign 2004. "If I didn't come, they would have said, 'He should have been here more rapidly,' " he said.
After landing in nearby Fort Myers at 9:15 a.m., Bush boarded an Army helicopter for a 30-minute tour, circling 500 feet above the remnants of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Strewn across the land were flipped vehicles, roofless homes and rows of unidentifiable stores. In one trailer park, motor homes lay on their sides, as if caught midway through a somersault.
As his motorcade made the 12-mile drive into the downtown historic district, Bush was greeted by a city in tatters -- and residents with nerves just as frayed. With temperatures approaching 90 degrees, no air conditioning and limited cold beverages, many people sat motionless in the shade, seeming uncertain what to do next.
"I can't stay in the house that long. It stinks," said Karen Farino, 60. The windows of her house along the river were blown out, and mildew was already forming. Sitting on a bench on Marion Avenue as Bush's motorcade circled, Farino had heard Bush "was around" but confessed she was more interested in a cup of coffee.
"I haven't had coffee in three days," she said. But there was none to be found, so she and her sister and brother-in-law ate a breakfast of hot dogs and bottled water served by volunteers.
Jacqui Gray, a self-described undecided voter, had come out hoping to get some answers.
"I wanted to hear that it's not going to be as long as Andrew, and he's not going to allow people to rip us off," she said, recalling that after the last major hurricane to hit Florida residents were victimized a second time by scam artists and price gouging. For now, her needs are modest. "All we want is water," she said. "I just want to take a shower."
A few Trabue Avenue residents did get to meet Bush. "He can come visit anytime. He doesn't need to wait until there's a hurricane," said Ron Hill, who described himself as a "very conservative Republican."
Bush surveyed some structural damage at the home of Gary Nickols and met 85-year-old George Nickols, who was bunking with his son since his own house was destroyed. The president apologized to the pair, saying he was "sorry it's under these circumstances" that they met.
Asked about the response in 1992, the president declared: "That was then, this is now." Then he added: "The lesson is, respond quickly. And we are responding quickly. And we're surging equipment. . . . A lot of stuff is coming."
Staff writer Mike Allen in Washington contributed to this report.