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Fla. Begins Recovery From Deadly Storm

Toll From Hurricane Charley Rises to 16

By David Snyder and David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A01

PUNTA GORDA, Fla., Aug. 15 -- Thousands homeless. More than a million without electricity, half that without water. A preliminary damage estimate of as much as $11 billion just for insured homes. A rise in the death toll to 16. As the remains of Hurricane Charley fizzled into a rainstorm off the coast of New England on Sunday, the numbers in Florida only got worse.

"A lot of people's lives are turned upside down," President Bush said after touring the area in southwest Florida where the hurricane came ashore Friday with sustained winds of 145 mph. That was the broad view. The more personal one came from George Nickols, a resident of ravaged Punta Gorda, who told Bush, "All the clothes that I've got now is just what I'm wearing now."

President Bush speaks with residents of Punta Gorda, Fla., while assessing damage caused by Hurricane Charley. Bush said federal aid was being rushed to the area. (Pool Photo Chip Litherland)

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From the wreckage of Nickols's home to the streets of Punta Gorda, where residents waited in long lines for food and water; to coastal communities such as Sanibel Island, where residents were told it might be days before they can return home; to inland towns such as Arcadia, where some residents said they didn't get adequate warning to evacuate, the sounds of the day were the same: chain saws, crying and complaints.

"The devastation is awful," said Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is working with 25 Florida counties eligible for federal disaster aid. He said he spent much of the day touring some of the 31 mobile home communities in Charlotte County, some with more than 1,000 units, "and most that I've seen, easily half of the trailers are not livable, if not totally destroyed."

Brown said it was too soon for a damage estimate. A spokesman for state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher gave an estimate of $5 billion to $11 billion, based on the value of homes and insurance policies along the path Charley took across Florida.

"We're very early into it," Brown said of the government's response. "The number one priority right now is the victims. We have a lot of homeless people."

He said temporary housing could include thousands of trailers that would be brought into Florida by truck in "a continuous stream." In addition, more than 60 trucks were headed into the most affected areas with supplies such as cots, blankets, portable toilets, water and ice.

The American Red Cross had opened 246 emergency shelters as of midday Sunday, "sheltered more than 46,000 people and served over 76,000 meals," spokesman Ray Steen said. He said that about 100 "emergency response vehicles" were driving through neighborhoods and delivering basic supplies such as toothpaste, mops and detergent. "Just an early beginning of what people need to get back on their feet," he said.

About 2,400 people remained in shelters Sunday night, the Associated Press reported.

With stores and restaurants closed for lack of electricity and driving hazardous because of downed power lines and traffic jams caused by gawkers and people checking on friends and properties, storm victims queued up for food and water distributed by the Salvation Army and other groups.

One line for a sandwich and a drink stretched for more than 100 yards in Punta Gorda as officials struggled to cope with the flood of people made homeless. Traffic was at a standstill for much of the day in the city's downtown.

Punta Gorda Police Chief Charles Rinehart said his officers were struggling just to handle the hordes of motorists who clogged the city's roadways. And calls were flooding the police department's communications center from people around the country checking in on loved ones.

While state officials confirmed that the number of dead had grown to 16, few details of those deaths were provided. Nor would state and local authorities give estimates of the number of injured and displaced people.

"For me to stand up here and say X number of people are out of their houses tonight is impossible," said Wayne Sallade, the director of emergency operations for Charlotte County.

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