President Bush dispatched two Cabinet secretaries and more federal money to this hard-hit state on Tuesday as tens of thousands of people flooded disaster relief hotlines, seeking everything from a hot shower to cold cash.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened the first of an estimated 10,000 temporary homes in the coastal town of Venice and cut 1,070 checks totaling $2 million.
"This is the start of a steady stream of checks," said FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, who arrived in the state on Saturday and could remain as long as two weeks.
But even with 1,000 FEMA workers and thousands of state emergency responders descending on southwest Florida, it was clear that recovery from Hurricane Charley will take months and is likely to become more arduous in the days ahead.
In Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, two communities obliterated by the storm, the stench of rotting garbage hung in the air. The number of people arriving at emergency shelters rose sharply Tuesday as many Floridians succumbed to the three main post-Charley discomforts -- no food, unreliable water and no electricity.
"The lines are so long and hard that I just couldn't take it anymore," Denise Fleury, 48, said as she sat sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup in the gym at L.A. Ainger Middle School in Englewood, about 20 miles from where the hurricane made landfall in Punta Gorda. "Coming to a shelter was the last thing I wanted to do, but I finally had no choice."
After touring the severely damaged St. Joseph's Hospital in Port Charlotte, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said he was alarmed by a rise in heart attacks and food poisoning, probably caused by the heat and the consumption of spoiled food from refrigerators that shut down Friday night. He brought with him $11 million in federal aid and several doctors and nurses who will help staff two rural hospitals and supplement Red Cross crisis teams. The money is in addition to aid being distributed by FEMA and other federal agencies.
The number of deaths blamed on Hurricane Charley rose to 20, and at least three more people were killed late Monday night when three cars collided in a Punta Gorda intersection that had lost its traffic signals.
Officials urged people without business in the area to stay away.
"We don't need looky-loos out there trying to see the damage," said Maj. John Davenport, chief deputy of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office.
Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said that in an Oval Office meeting on Monday, Bush directed him to check on what initially appeared to be a slow effort to restore power. Ridge said the president was not critical but wanted to convey "a sense of urgency" for the need to improve communications.
During his visit to the area on Sunday, for instance, Bush learned that one family in dire need of ice and water was unaware that relief was just a few blocks away, Ridge said. With about 640,000 households still without power, Ridge promised federal and state workers would "literally take to the streets" to get information to hurricane victims.
By Tuesday, FEMA's disaster relief center in Port Charlotte had received a generator and satellite capability to set up a phone bank for people to file applications for federal aid, as much as $26,500 per household.
At the Ainger school, the largest shelter in Charlotte County, the number of displaced residents swelled from 150 on Monday to 400 on Tuesday, Red Cross spokeswoman Susan Campbell said.
"A lot of us just can't go back and live the way we've been living," said Denise Loafman, 27. "Or we just don't have the energy to go back."
Like many who fled to shelters, Fleury saw only moderate damage to her house. She and her daughter and two granddaughters stayed there for three days after Charley hit, but the fourth day proved too much.
There was raw sewage in a ditch nearby, and the girls, ages 6 and 9, developed rashes. As she waited in line for water and ice on Tuesday afternoon, Fleury said, one of the girls vomited in the back seat of the car and Fleury was delirious from heat and exhaustion. "I was crying behind the wheel," she said. "I wasn't sure where to go or what to do."
Ice lines remained long, though the arrival of the National Guard dramatically sped them up. In downtown Punta Gorda on Tuesday morning, about 80 Guardsmen filled six cars every two minutes with bags of ice, three cases of bottled water and tarps. The crew of 350 served 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles on Monday, Capt. Conrad Case said.
Officials from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, two barrier islands just off Fort Myers, said they would allow residents to return home on Wednesday morning.
All airports in affected areas resumed normal service except for the Punta Gorda airport, which operated only during the day, state spokeswoman Kathalyn Gaither said. More than 90 mobile cafeterias fanned out in neighborhoods, and emergency workers distributed 1.9 million gallons of water, she said.
Surveying the damage from the open window of a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter, Ridge and Thompson saw the upturned airplanes, decapitated trees, roofless homes and flattened trailers that Bush had seen two days earlier. From 800 feet above, the most encouraging sign was the dozens of bright blue tarps stretched over many houses, a sign that some families are at least protected from the daily thunderstorms.
"You never get over the devastation associated with the force of Mother Nature," Ridge said. "It's just the indiscriminate nature of it."
Administration officials have brushed off suggestions that the attention being paid Florida is related to the state's 27 electoral votes in the November presidential election. Virtually every county brutalized by Hurricane Charley -- including Lee, Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Collier -- voted for the Bush-Cheney ticket in the 2000 recounted vote.
Ridge, Thompson and Brown rode by motorcade through parts of Fort Myers that escaped Charley with minimal damage. When Ridge spotted a man loading the remains of a row of mango trees into a pickup truck, he leaped out to shake the man's hand.
"We depend on a lot of people like you to help us recover," Ridge told Terry Sumners.