- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — Residents left homeless by Hurricane Charley’s 145 mph winds dug through their ravaged homes yesterday, sweeping up shattered glass and rescuing what they could as President Bush promised rapid delivery of disaster aid.

With temperatures in the 90s and humidity that made it feel hotter, people waited with carts in long lines to buy ice. Supermarkets gave away water in five cities as more than 1 million people remained without power and 2,400 stayed in emergency shelters.

“It’s as close to hell as I can think of,” said Khoum Khampapha, a resident of Easy Street in Port Charlotte, as he looked around his neighborhood of gutted homes. “It’s just breathtaking.”

As the storm weakened off the coast of New England, Mr. Bush surveyed the devastation in Florida, where the storm caused billions of dollars in damage and killed at least 16 persons.

Officials have said hundreds of people were unaccounted for yesterday. The search for missing people was slow in some areas because of dangers from downed power lines and debris, law enforcement officials said.

In and around Punta Gorda, mobile home after mobile home lay toppled. Others were blown apart, exposing interior walls that had been pushed down flat, with doorways leading to nowhere. Other rooms stood, but without ceilings or roofs to shelter them from the open sky.

Chad Maxwell shoveled up soggy ceiling tiles and shattered glass yesterday from the floor of the real estate office where he works in Punta Gorda. Downtown “looks like a bomb zone,” he said, surveying the coffee shop next door, which lost its second floor, and a florist’s shop with only one wall standing.

“Everything’s gone. Everything’s tore up,” he said.

Emergency officials pronounced Charley the worst hurricane to hit Florida since Andrew in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in insured property losses.

The hardest-hit areas appeared to be the retirement community of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County, though federal officials expanded the disaster aid zone to 25 counties yesterday.

From his helicopter Marine One, Mr. Bush could see debris from trailer park homes strewn across green fields and roofs that had been torn off hangars at Charlotte County Airport. He consoled storm victims in Punta Gorda.

“All the clothes that I’ve got now is just what I’m wearing,” resident George Nickols told Mr. Bush during the president’s 2-hour visit.

The president promised rapid assistance for Florida, where officials estimated damages of up to $11 billion to insured homes alone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was sending teams of medical, urban rescue and communication workers; at least 60 semitrailers containing cots, blankets, meals, portable toilets, wash kits and other necessities; and truckloads of water and ice.

FEMA said the state has requested catastrophic housing for 10,000 people, and more than 4,000 National Guard troops have been activated.

State officials warned of price gouging and promised to arrest offenders. The state had received about 400 complaints of price gouging as of yesterday, and officials warned people not to pay cash for repairs.

“People need to watch out for the scam artists,” said Florida Agriculture & Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson. “They’re out there. They always are.”

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