Cleanup crews and rescue workers descended on the wreckage left by Hurricane Charley Sunday as President Bush toured the area by air and by motorcade to personally assess the damage.
Two days after the storm slammed into the southwest Florida coast with winds of 145-mph, state officials issued a rough estimate of the damage to residential property, saying it could range between $5 billion and $11 billion. Thousands of people, many of them elderly retirees, have been left homeless, and many more are without water and power.
So far, at least 16 people have been confirmed killed in Florida by the hurricane, but authorities indicated that the death toll could rise. Hundreds of people remained unaccounted for Sunday, as rescue workers combed devastated trailer parks for victims trapped in debris.
After flying low over the affected areas in his Marine One helicopter, Bush toured a heavily damaged area of this town by motorcade. Accompanied by his brother Jeb Bush, the Republican governor of Florida, the president got out of his vehicle and visited people in a residential neighborhood.
"A lot of people's lives are turned upside down," Bush said with his brother standing by his side on a residential street. But, "there's a lot of compassion moving into the area," he said.
"It's going to take awhile to rebuild it, but the government's job is to help people rebuild their lives, and that's what's happening," Bush told reporters accompanying him.
Nearly everyone in the neighborhood he visited had heeded government warnings to evacuate, "and therefore loss of lives was minimized," Bush said.
"Still, too many people lost their lives, but nevertheless it was not as significant as it could have been," he said.
As a chain saw buzzed in the background, he said people he spoke with had voiced concerns about insurance payments. " And the state's organized to handle them, the insurance claims," Bush said.
Asked whether people might think there was a "political component" to his trip -- given that Florida is a crucial swing state in the November presidential election and that his father, president George H.W. Bush, suffered a political setback from the government's handling of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 -- Bush said, "Yeah, and if I didn't come, they'd have said he should have been here more rapidly."
Bush was then asked if there was a lesson in the federal government's response in 1992. "The lesson is, respond quickly," he said. "And we are responding quickly. And we're surging equipment." From the federal perspective, he said, "A lot of stuff's coming."
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said while viewing the damage in Punta Gorda that it was "entirely appropriate" for Bush to visit the area because the hurricane was "a major natural disaster, national in its scope."
Nelson added that he expects Bush to reap some political benefits in the state, which he said was "split down the middle" in support for the president and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Kerry said he was forgoing a visit to Florida at this time because he did not want to divert law enforcement authorities from the recovery effort.
As cleanup efforts continued under bright sunshine in this town of about 14,000 people, it was difficult to identify some of the damaged buildings on Marion Avenue, the main street of Punta Gorda. Many were unrecognizable, their signs gone with the wind and their facades torn away.
The streets were filled with debris ranging from entire trees to downed power lines and big patches of roofs.
Standing with a camera while waiting for Bush's motorcade to pass, Jacqui Gray, 49, said her home had sustained some damage from fallen trees and had windows blown out, but had essentially survived the hurricane. A daughter and two grandchildren had lost their home entirely and were now staying with Gray and her husband in their two-bedroom house, she said.
"All we want is water," Gray said. "I just want to take a shower."
After Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, when she was living in Fort Lauderdale, "it took forever to get help," she said. She said she was waiting for Bush because "I wanted to hear what he had to say," adding, "I'm one of those undecided voters."
In Charlotte County, which includes Punta Gorda, all 31 mobile home parks in the jurisdiction were damaged, along with three hospitals, officials said.
In neighboring Lee County, local officials estimated that 250,000 structures sustained damage, roughly half from water and half from wind.
Several communities imposed nighttime curfews in an effort to discourage looting.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared 25 counties eligible for federal disaster aid.
Branigin reported from Washington.