Hurricane Charley raced up the Atlantic seaboard Saturday, leaving a trail of demolished homes, flooded streets and uprooted palm trees, forcing thousands from their homes and killing at least 13 people.
In Florida, where 145-mph winds flattened trailer parks and tore roofs off hospitals and office buildings, emergency officials described the storm as the worst since Hurricane Andrew, which caused a record $28 billion in damage when it smashed through the southern part of the state in 1992. At least three cities were without running water, and 2 million homes were without power.
Evacuation centers were packed in the central Gulf Coast counties, and authorities grimly searched door to door through devastated neighborhoods for those who had not fled or survived.
"It's our Andrew," said Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County, which felt the brunt of the hurricane Friday afternoon when the Category 4 storm made an unexpected right turn onto the southwestern coast of Florida after gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico. "The destruction is catastrophic."
The epicenter of the hurricane's fury was here in Punta Gorda, a quiet retirement community of 14,000 people, many of them living in flimsy trailer homes along the creeks and streams that feed into Charlotte Harbor. A day after the storm hit, dazed residents were picking their way through the debris, as volunteers swept away broken glass and shards of metal. Telephone lines were down, and there was no water or power.
"Have you ever seen such a mess?" asked Ginny Fay, 88, a retiree living in a trailer with an adult son, as she surveyed a street full of leveled homes and ripped-up palm trees. "I don't know what we are going to do, where we are going to go. I don't know anything."
President Bush declared Florida a federal disaster area, and federal authorities sent a mortuary team to assist with the dead.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), surveyed the devastation by helicopter. Visiting relief workers in Punta Gorda, he defended scientists and local officials from criticism that they had miscalculated the path of the hurricane, which had been expected to hit the more heavily populated Tampa Bay region nearly 100 miles to the north.
"God doesn't follow the linear projections of computer models," Bush told reporters here outside the emergency management center, whose roof caved in during the hurricane. "This is God's way of telling us that He's almighty and we're mortal."
After racing across central Florida, past Orlando, where it left 150,000 people without power and damaged 70 percent of the private planes parked at the city's executive airport, Charley blew out into the Atlantic, skirting Jacksonville on its way north. By the time it made its second landfall, in South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region, and moved into North Carolina, it had been downgraded to a topical storm.
In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency. Forecasters predicted stormy weather as far north as Massachusetts as Charley's winds calmed to about 40 mph at 11 p.m. Saturday as it moved over the Atlantic about 30 miles south-southeast of Ocean City.
President Bush announced that he will visit Florida on Sunday to demonstrate that "our federal government is responding quickly to provide aid." Political analysts noted that his father, George H.W. Bush, is widely believed to have lost votes in the 1992 presidential election because of a lackadaisical federal response to Hurricane Andrew.
Campaigning in Oregon, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said that he had directed his activists in Florida, which is a key battleground state, "to try to turn their attention to helping the recovery efforts." He said he will not immediately go to Florida because he does not want to distract police from their storm-related duties.
Florida officials said they were calling up 5,000 National Guard troops to prevent looting and to assist in cleanup efforts, along with thousands of firefighters and law enforcement officers. They warned against price-gouging and imposed nighttime curfews in some of the most seriously affected areas.
The casualty tally is expected to rise as rescuers pick their way through the ruins of trailer homes and other buildings flattened by the hurricane. Charlotte County officials confirmed four deaths, and there were nine confirmed storm-related deaths elsewhere in the state, according to the Associated Press.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that 50,000 people were in shelters and that 80 percent of the buildings in Charlotte County were damaged. Florida sought emergency housing assistance for 10,000 families. And the American Red Cross set up 250 disaster-relief shelters in the state.
Charley brought power outages and traffic jams throughout southern Florida, as hundreds of thousands of motorists clogged the highways to escape the storm and then to return to their homes. Because of the initial predictions about the hurricane's course, some people found themselves driving into more exposed areas.
Willis Williams, 56, evacuated his home in Largo, west of Tampa, on Friday morning, fleeing to the Orlando area, where it took him many hours to find a hotel room. On Saturday, he was stranded in an 80-mile traffic jam on Interstate 4 while trying to return home. "I left Largo because they said the storm was headed there, but it actually hit the [Orlando] area much harder," he said, as he waited in a long line for gas outside Walt Disney World, which reopened Saturday after closing briefly because of the hurricane.
On state Highway 17, south of Orlando, a trail of storm damage led the way to Charlotte County. "It was like a bomb went off," said William McPherson, a volunteer firefighter in Fort Meade. "Every street has tree limbs down, power lines down."
Further south, in Wauchula, which is largely populated by migrant farm workers, many trailer homes had been crushed by fallen trees, or had been flipped on their sides by tornadoes spawned by the hurricane. Telephone poles were strewn across roads, snapped into several pieces like toothpicks. Traffic lights had been ripped from poles, and several streets were impassable because of flooding.
"I've lived in the Caribbean for 30 years, and I have never seen a hurricane this bad," said Phil Anderson, who helped several Haitian families evacuate their homes. "It was so fast, but so intense."
The Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda evacuated its remaining 23 most seriously ill patients on Saturday afternoon after it lost power and phone service, and after its windows were blown out. In the Sheriff's Department station nearby, the roof had caved in. Residents said that the hurricane hit the area at about 3:45 p.m. Friday and that the worst of the storm lasted for about an hour.
"I thought I was going to die," said Mindy Lyles, 39, a bartender who decided to ride out the storm in her trailer home. "The ceiling was jumping. It took the side off, like a can opener."
Punta Gorda residents said most people appeared to have stayed in the town, not heeding the mandatory evacuation order issued by emergency authorities. The tug of home was so strong that many evacuees returned Saturday from other parts of the state.
"My home is here, my things are here, my friends are here, my life is here," said Sandra Rickets, who brought her three dogs to the emergency operations center, as she searched for a place to stay after her trailer home was destroyed. An officer at the door just shook his head. "We have no shelters, ma'am. They aren't going to open until we have power, and we don't know when that's going to happen."
Dobbs reported from Washington. Staff writers Ceci Connolly in Wauchula, Fla., and David Snyder in Arcadia, Fla. contributed to this report.
Trees felled by Charley lie across a street in Maitland, Fla.Boats are piled up on the north end of Pine Island, Fla., after the hurricane. Charley surprised forecasters by veering away from Tampa.
Marion Lindley, 87, sits atop her three-wheeler and takes a picture of the devastation at the Parkhill mobile home park in Punta Gorda. David J. Migneault sits in what remains of his law office in the Professional Building in Punta Gorda. The hurricane ripped off an outside wall of the building.