Normal looks a universe away from here.
Yet, one week after Hurricane Charley brutalized 200 miles of Florida, almost everywhere someone -- emergency directors, homeless retirees, police chiefs -- is talking about it, hoping out loud for it -- normal.
"Almost normal." "Getting back to normal."
This is the new normal in the towns Charley crashed through: Bright blue plastic tarps are roofs. Cardboard boxes are closets; school cafeterias are bedrooms. In some spots, an essence of Old West-style bravado is in the air, along with the stench of garbage. The signs say so: "Looters will be shot."
"It's going to be a long, long time until I feel normal," Christine Williamson said as she watched her husband trying vainly to pull their Punta Gorda trailer home off the roof of her neighbor's. "But our psyche wants that."
The massive storm, the worst in Florida since Hurricane Andrew killed 26 and caused $25 billion in damage in 1992, has left 23 people dead -- and the count keeps rising. The American Red Cross estimates that almost 900 homes were destroyed and 20,000 suffered major or minor damage -- and the count keeps rising. The price-gouging complaints have topped 2,200 -- and the count keeps rising.
At the same time, other numbers are more hopeful: 2.8 million people without power has shrunk to 330,000. The Federal Emergency Management Agency thought it would have to set up temporary homes for 10,000, but now plans on 4,000.
"These people don't have a normal routine," FEMA Director Michael D. Brown said in an interview. "It's not 'What do I wear today?' It's 'Do I have to wear the same thing again today?' "
Power, in great part, dictates the direction of the next few weeks. Florida Power & Light Co., the huge electrical company that serves most of the storm-damaged areas from southwest Florida across the state's ravaged orange groves to Orlando, predicted Thursday that it would have all power restored by Aug. 29.
Wayne Sallade, the emergency management director in Charlotte County, urged residents to be careful about assessing whether their home's internal wiring is sound enough to receive electricity -- without sparking fires -- once the power lines are restored.
"Our fire chief is just -- he's beside himself," Sallade said.
Damage to publicly owned buildings and equipment has been estimated at $500 million in Charlotte County, nearly equaling the size of the county's annual budget of $540 million. The statewide damage total, although still being assessed, could reach $14 billion.
Florida is 11 days away from a tightly contested U.S. Senate primary, which is considered a critical test of the troubled electronic voting machines that will be used in the November presidential election. The logistical challenges of running a primary in towns ravaged by Charley's winds could be monumental. In Charlotte County, plans are being made to compensate for ruined polling places by consolidating voting in "super-precincts."
For all the concerns, there are signs that life is catching its old rhythms in some of the counties most affected by the storm. Television stations in cities near Punta Gorda that the storm missed have eased back into regular programming, some broadcasting soap operas on Thursday for the first time in a week.
The U.S. flag flies over the post office in downtown Punta Gorda again. Little mail trucks gingerly navigate the tree-littered roads, and residents whose mailboxes were destroyed have been leaving handmade containers with signs that say "Mail here, please."
The soundtrack of the region is pure generator and chain saw. Both were on sale, pitched from the backs of pickup trucks and under shade trees, on the roads leading into the storm's nexus in Punta Gorda.
The Florida attorney general's office has filed charges against two hotels accused of inflating prices. It is preparing several other cases culled from thousands of complaints, including disturbing reports of huge price increases for water and ice.
"They've been victimized once; it's unbelievable to think that someone would think to victimize them again with price gouging," Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said.
The area's large Spanish-speaking population is also increasingly a focus of emergency workers because of rumors that undocumented aliens seeking help would be deported.
"We don't care if they are documented or undocumented. We can get them help," said Brown, who appeared Thursday on the Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision.
Brown's agency has accepted 72,000 requests for financial housing assistance and has approved 20,000, distributing $10.5 million.
For those still waiting, places such as L.A. Ainger Middle School in Rotonda West, the closest shelter to Punta Gorda, are home. Gloria Henry, 58, who retired to Port Charlotte four years ago after decades of making Hershey's chocolate bars, did cross-stitch and listened to her neighbor, Bertha Chachere, 38, vent about being denied housing aid by FEMA.
"My husband says, 'We're going back to Pennsylvania. I'll leave you down here and go myself if I have to,' " Henry said.
A few steps away from the air mattress that Henry and her husband, Mike, have shared for five nights, Denise Fleury escaped into a romance novel.
Its title was "Feather in the Wind."
Connolly reported from Washington. Staff writer David Snyder in Fort Myers and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.