Charlene Dale thought she could tough out Hurricane Charley in her apartment here -- until the roof collapsed and water began streaming into her bedroom.
"Thank God, they rescued me," said Dale, one of hundreds forced to spend Friday night in a makeshift shelter at the local elementary school. "I have arthritis, so it's been kind of tough."
Just about dinnertime Friday, Hurricane Charley, with winds over 100 mph, ripped across central Florida, devouring trees, power lines, entire motor homes and anything else that stood in its way. Thousands of people were left homeless, although, with many roads still impassable Saturday, emergency officials had difficulty estimating the full extent of the damage -- in lives or money.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials estimated that about 50,000 people were in shelters. Florida is seeking emergency housing assistance for 10,000.
Volunteers at Wauchula Elementary School, with a boost of power from the school generator, managed to turn on the lights in the cafeteria. They served 800 sandwiches Friday and 400 Saturday and delivered 850 more around town, said cafeteria manager Janie Evans, who had not slept since Thursday when she first began planning for the hurricane.
"We used up the groceries for next week's school, but I don't think there's going to be school," Evans said. As rain streamed down outside the kitchen door, Evans's team attempted to light an enormous jury-rigged barbecue in the hopes of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers for rescue workers.
Not since Hurricane Donna dropped down on this hamlet in 1960 have the people of Wauchula endured such hardship.
After spending the night at a school in nearby Zolfo Springs, Amelia Burns and her family returned to their double-wide trailer early Saturday morning to assess the damage.
"We cried the whole way home," she said. The trailer survived, but the back porch and barn were destroyed and the family's goats have fled.
Area stores closed at noon Friday, so Burns had no ice to preserve the family's food. "I had $80 worth of food. It's gone," she said.
Seated on a cafeteria bench beside her, Burns's daughter-in-law was not so lucky. Her trailer was crushed by a giant tree, leaving Amanda Burns, her husband and their two children homeless.
Tracey Nix, assistant principal of the Wauchula school, had been seated at her kitchen table with her husband and two daughters when the two picture windows "began to rattle and then exploded."
They dashed into the safety of the laundry room and, when the eye of the storm passed overhead, she slipped out to grab family photo albums and her grandparents' heirlooms.
"It's amazing how quickly your priorities fall into place," she said, her eyes welling up.
Even in the shelter, Charley and its aftermath intruded. As the roof inside the cafeteria sprang one, two and then three leaks, volunteers raced for trash cans to catch the water.
There were a few signs of normalcy -- barefoot children built entire cities out of Lego while the grownups smoked outside.
Similar scenes played out elsewhere where the hurricane hit.
When Dan Brooks left Port Charlotte, Fla., on Friday to escape Charley, he had a job, a house and a family. When he returned Saturday, sunburned and exhausted, he knew he had lost at least his job -- the storm leveled the Chili's restaurant where he was a cook -- and he suspected home and family might be gone as well.
Police turned him back before he could reach Port Charlotte, so Brooks, 31, could not be sure what was still there.
"I just hope they're not answering their phones because the cell towers are down," Brooks said of his family. He gripped a white-covered Bible as he stood in front of De Soto High School in Arcadia. The authorities had fashioned the school into an emergency shelter for the hundreds of county residents who had lost their homes. "I'm just in shock right now. I don't know what to think," Brooks said.
It took Brooks nearly all day to get back to De Soto County. He stayed in Ocala on Friday night while his mother and brothers stayed behind in their own homes in Port Charlotte. He started heading back Saturday morning, at first walking, and eventually getting a ride. But when he got to the De Soto County line, police said he could go no further.
He started walking again. Eventually, someone gave him a ride. He got to the edge of Port Charlotte late Saturday afternoon and again was turned back by police.
He made his way to the high school. There, pulling on a cigarette, he contemplated a future that might have drastically changed in just 24 hours.
"I can't get a hold of my roommate to see how the house is doing," Brooks said. "We do have a couple of oak trees in back. Those things might have fallen right on the house."
Greg Hatcher, 28, was stranded at De Soto High after winds blew the roof off his three-bedroom home in Fort Ogden, where he lives with his wife and four children.
At least he knew where he was going to stay Saturday night -- in his parents' house, with at least 10 others. "Hopefully we'll only need to be there a few days," he said.
After that? Hatcher couldn't say. "My roof is totally gone. The whole house is kind of on a tilt."
His brother Steve Hatcher, 26, said the storm surprised him.
"I've been here my whole life and I've never seen anything close to this," he said.
Snyder reported from Arcadia, Fla.