An Aug. 19 article incorrectly said that Captiva Island in Florida was split in half by Hurricane Charley. That damage occurred on North Captiva Island. (Published 8/20/04)

On the final day of exile, as a postcard sunrise blossomed across the bay in classic Florida pastels, a 2000 Chrysler Sebring inched across the Sanibel Causeway, its occupants hoping their personal paradise was not lost.

Ron Heidel, in the driver's seat, had not slept the night before. His passenger and girlfriend, Brenda Wentworth, was fidgety and voluble. From time to time, she peeked out to watch the news and the police helicopters circling above.

Behind them stretched a line of hundreds of cars, filled with residents of this wealthy resort island who had been barred from the area since Hurricane Charley tore through, toppling thousands of Australian pines, smashing windows, leaving dream homes open to the elements.

Since they evacuated on Aug. 12, island residents had been unable to return because of concerns that the causeway might not be structurally sound and because island roads were impassable. Now, as they crossed the bridge, they got their first glimpse of the damage the hurricane had wrought: Trees flattened. Ponds where there had been dry land. Beaches littered with plastic bottles, garbage cans and chunks of plastic, indiscernible in origin. Roofs opened like the tops of tin cans.

A strange sense of suspended animation pervaded the island. Newspaper dispensers trumpeted a now archaic headline: "Charley Threatens." Huxler's Liquor Store had become Huxler's Li uor Store.

The residents were among the last to know the personal repercussions of a hurricane that killed 22 people and caused billions of dollars in damage as it cut a swath through the heart of Florida.

Residents of Fort Myers Beach, another barrier island in San Carlos Bay, also got their first glimpse Wednesday of Charley's impact on their homes and lives, as officials threw open the gates for the first time since residents evacuated last week.

Everyone else has had days to cope with lives and homes ruined. On Wednesday, repairs were well underway in Punta Gorda, the storm's epicenter, and National Guard troops continued to distribute water and ice from military transport trucks in the city's gutted center. About 438,000 people statewide remained without electricity, officials said.

But for the 6,000 residents of Sanibel Island, the damage has all been conjecture. The same has been true for Captiva Island, which on Wednesday remained off-limits even to residents. Charley had slashed Captiva in half, and officials said the damage there was far more extensive than on Sanibel, which is separated from Captiva by a thin, silt-filled channel.

By Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had opened four disaster recovery centers in the state, and had disbursed 2,600 checks totaling more than $5.1 million for home repairs. On Thursday, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and FEMA Director Michael D. Brown are scheduled to open a fifth disaster recovery center, in Buena Vista, south of Orlando.

Interlopers have made their way to Sanibel by boat. Police patrols stopped many. The well-connected and powerful -- chief among them Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), recent nominee to head the CIA and Sanibel's first mayor -- have been able to fly over the island and see the wreckage.

But for Heidel, who sold his restaurant and nightclub and moved from Northern Virginia last February to retire on an island that he and Wentworth call "a dream come true," his home's condition had remained maddeningly unknown.

The house -- a three-story marvel that backs up to the 12th hole of a pristine golf course -- has a study with a Brazilian cherry wood floor. The cavernous living room has a new plasma screen television the size of a Hummer's windshield. It is everything Heidel ever wanted, and he had no idea what has happened to it.

It was 7:30 a.m., and the Chrysler was almost within sight of the toll booth.

"I was mostly all right until last night, when they were talking about 75 percent of the roofs having damage," said Heidel, 57, pulling on this third cigarette in the past half-hour.

"Do you think they'll make us pay the toll?" asked Wentworth, 43.

Since Sanibel was incorporated in 1974, it has been known in this rapidly developing part of Florida as a place apart. A vast swath of the island is conserved from all development, either as part of a National Wildlife Refuge or as privately owned land. Bike paths wind through the island's idyllic glades of palms and pines. Chain stores such as Dairy Queen and 7-Eleven exist but are designed to be hidden from view.

Zoning restrictions are tight. Exterior lights are not allowed on homes because they disturb the nesting of turtles.

"They're really strict about the rules," Wentworth said. "But I'm glad, because if they weren't, it wouldn't be this beautiful."

At 7:45 a.m., the Chrysler moved through the toll booth -- no toll required -- and across the causeway.

The damage appeared immediately. The trees along the shore were still there, but looked thinned, like a receding hairline.

As Heidel and Wentworth moved onto the island, past clusters of city officials, Lee County sheriff's deputies and wildlife specialists, they saw the missing roofs, demolished screen porches, toppled trees.

By 8:30 a.m., the Chrysler was on Birdie View Point, Heidel's street. Things looked better. There were roof tiles missing on the $1.5 million homes that line this block, and many trees down. But only a handful of windows were missing.

At 8:37 a.m., Heidel slipped the key into the lock and opened the door of his home. Wentworth quickly followed. From Heidel, an exultant shout of relief: "No water anywhere, baby!" The biggest fear was that a storm surge would flood the basement.

No windows broken. No leaks in the ceiling. No water in the basement. Everything was essentially the way it had been six days earlier, except for the tadpoles that have taken over the swimming pool and the leaves plastered to the sliding glass doors. There was, however, no electricity.

Heidel popped open the refrigerator door, expecting the odor of rotten food.

Providence decided to shine brightly, though. Even the week-old pizza in the warm refrigerator did not smell that bad.

"The TV's fine; the car's fine," Wentworth said. "We're so lucky. It's incredible."

Paradise, it turned out, was never lost. Just put on hold for a week.

Staff writer Ceci Connolly in Punta Gorda, Fla., contributed to this report.

Mark Ryan examines his house on Sanibel Island, Fla. He credits tough building codes for the survival of his home and other structures on the island.