- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Rescuers rummaged through a chaotic landscape of pulverized homes and twisted metal yesterday, racing to tally Hurricane Charley’s “significant loss of life” and help thousands left homeless by its vicious winds and rain. At least 13 persons are confirmed dead.

As a weakened Charley churned into the Carolinas and was downgraded to a tropical storm, newly sunny skies revealed its destruction in Florida, where emergency officials pronounced it the worst to wallop the state since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in damage.

“Our worst fears have come true,” said Gov. Jeb Bush, who surveyed the devastation by helicopter. The Category 4 storm was expected to cost Florida “at least several billion dollars,” said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.

State officials confirmed 13 deaths based on reports from medical examiners. The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County.

“We believe there’s significant loss of life,” said Wayne Sallade, county director of emergency services, adding later: “I would hope that it would be limited to dozens, if that.”

Hundreds are unaccounted for in the county. Extensive damage also was reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.

Thirty-one mobile-home parks in Charlotte County, some with more than 1,000 units, sustained major damage, said Bob Carpenter, a sheriff’s spokesman. He said teams were sent to each park to search for bodies and survivors, but “we just couldn’t get the vehicles in — there is so much debris.”

Several medical centers were badly damaged, forcing hospital officials to evacuate patients to other facilities.

The storm and its 145-mph winds knocked out power to about 2 million homes and businesses as it crossed from the southwest coast at Punta Gorda to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach. About 1.3 million remained without power yesterday afternoon, emergency officials said, and downed lines slowed some rescuers.

Three cities in Southwest Florida — Arcadia, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda — were without running water, state environmental officials said.

President Bush, the governor’s brother, declared Florida a federal disaster area. The president will visit today to survey damage, and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, in a statement, offered “heartfelt sympathies.”

Mike McHargue, director of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said two persons died in Polk County, and the rest in DeSoto, Lee and Sarasota counties. He said downed power lines and debris made the work of searching for bodies “tedious and dangerous.”

Deputies were standing guard over some bodies because they were in areas not immediately accessible by ambulances. Earlier, Charley killed four persons in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

As recovery efforts began, Florida officials warned against price gouging and said violators face heavy fines. The state’s emergency response team sent more than 1.8 million gallons of bottled water and 2.9 million pounds of ice to damaged areas.

As Charley moved up the Atlantic coast, the maximum sustained wind speed was 75 mph when it arrived in North Carolina. It kept weakening during the afternoon and was downgraded to a tropical storm when its wind speed dropped to 69 mph.

The foul weather lasted only about a half-hour in any given spot in North Carolina. About 108,000 customers lost power, Progress Energy reported. In South Carolina, about 65,000 homes and business were blacked out, utility officials said.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner declared a state of emergency and said state police, the highway department and the National Guard had extra staff on standby.

The main threat in Virginia was the potential for heavy rain, the National Weather Service said. Highway crews were prepared to close the Midtown Tunnel, connecting Norfolk and Portsmouth, in the event of flooding. Tropical Storm Isabel filled the tunnel with nearly 44 million gallons of water in September, closing it for nearly a month.

Farther up the shore, in Maryland, a heavy stream of traffic flowed inland as families scrapped their weekend beach plans and headed home to escape the rain and wind expected at up to 45 mph. In Queen Anne’s County, motorists were at a standstill on Route 50 as they crowded toward the Bay Bridge.

Steady rain in New Jersey drove vacationers off the beaches at Cape May, and lifeguards tied down stands as the remnants of Charley streamed northward.

“It’s just rain now, but since it’s forecast to get worse, we’re done for now,” said Gail Deal, one of the exhibitors packing up tents and merchandise at the Promenade Craft Show at Cape May.

South Carolina’s Grand Strand resort area had been nearly emptied of 180,000 tourists and residents by the time the storm ran ashore with 85 mph wind, still enough to qualify it as a hurricane. McClellanville, a small town that bore the brunt of powerful Hurricane Hugo 15 years ago, had street flooding and broken tree limbs.

Charley’s force took forecasters by surprise and showed just how shaky a science it still is to predict a storm’s intensity — even with all the latest satellite and radar technology.

“Most major hurricanes become major by going through a rapid intensification. This is the No. 1 area to research. I think that there is the perception out there because of the satellite photos and aircraft data, people do have faith in the technology and sometimes that faith is too much,” Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

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