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For Devastated County's Retirees, a Paradise Is Lost

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A01

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla., Aug. 15 -- Sometimes, their fingers are all that is visible. Bent and knobby. Papery-thin skin. Blue veins.

They clamp rigidly to barely cracked doorways, to broken window sills, to holes in the sides of walls that weren't there a week ago.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, Vivian Melvin pauses while searching through the wreckage of her home outside Punta Gorda, Fla. Many retirees live in the area. (Gregory Bull -- AP)

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Inside the shattered trailers and apartments that Hurricane Charley left behind, there are hundreds upon hundreds of grandmothers and grandfathers. They came because the Maryland wind blew too cold, because the auto plant closed in Michigan, because they fell in love with the palms and the sun on a long-ago vacation. But, most of all, they came because this place represented something elusive that seemed so attainable: paradise.

"Look around now," said Betty Korb, 74, who moved 14 years ago from Kent Island, Md., to a double-wide in Port Charlotte with a stunning view of the Peace River. "It looks like hell to me."

The storm that tore apart Korb's home chose the oldest place in America to bedevil. Nearly 35 percent of the residents of Charlotte County, a waterfront haven for fishermen and retirees, are over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median age in the county is 54. And the storm's worst devastation was trained on some of the county's oldest nooks. Just under half the population is over 65 in Punta Gorda, for instance, the devastated city that President Bush toured on Sunday.

Many of the elderly here were too old or too sick or too confused to respond quickly and escape when Charley made its surprise turn to the right and slammed into their community on Friday. They toddled into hallways and prayed -- sixtysomethings caring for 70-year-olds, who were caring for 80-year-olds. The unlucky ones, the ones who couldn't find a motel or a friend with a sturdy home, tucked under mattresses in mobile homes rocked by the wind.

Charley's departure has left many of them alone, unable to communicate with faraway relatives because of persistent phone problems. They are reliant on the occasional Humvee that picks down their littered streets with a loudspeaker blaring: "Anyone need bottled water?"

Some were too shaken even to look for help. On Sunday, more than 48 hours after Charley passed, rescuers in Punta Gorda found an elderly woman in her closet who thought the storm was still raging outside.

The storm transformed streets in the dozens of trailer parks here, where "fixed-income" is a given, into sad, strange antique displays: Tennessee Ernie Ford records lie next to crocheted souvenir pillows from long-ago trips to San Francisco. Someone's 1959 high school yearbook with careful cursive, old-lady writing next to the senior pictures: "Married 1960. Married 1962." A "Frankie Laine Golden Hits" cassette, a family picture of Mom and daughters in bouffants.

Outside Korb's trailer, with the metal siding stripped clean and the windows gone, is half of an 8mm film projector. The canisters of film amid the broken glass, hot to the touch in the scorching sun, hold memories of swim parties and birthday cakes -- better days on the Chesapeake.

The Korbs live in what could only be called their own family corner of the Harborview, a mobile home complex for seniors where the winding streets were thick with broken palms and twisted aluminum. Betty's husband, Dick, 75, a retired tobacco salesman who also served 12 years as a Baltimore police officer, picked out the white trailer with the view two years before he retired. His sister Eleanor bought a place four doors down, and another sister, Betty Miller, followed them to the same corner.

With motel rooms fast disappearing, the Korbs were able to hide from Charley in a nephew's condominium 15 miles to the north. They want to rebuild with the insurance money, but Betty Korb is "nervous."

"These places don't hold up like a house," she said.

At the entrance to Harborview, Lucille Anderson, 83, sat in a sedan, complaining about the sun and the heat. She stopped driving years ago, but one of her "younger" friends -- 81-year-old Virginia Woford -- chauffeured her to the complex, looking for lost friends. They hadn't heard from their pals since the storm was bearing down on Port Charlotte.

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