- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Charley’s victims turned out by the hundreds in 90-degree heat yesterday to cope with the storm’s latest blow to their lives — the mass shutdown of businesses that has left them without jobs.

“Charley laid me off,” said Rose Vito. The 57-year-old telemarketing assistant in red-plaid pajamas was in line outside the Employ Florida mobile benefits station in Port Charlotte’s Harold Avenue Recreational Center parking lot. “Without phones and computers, [telemarketing] can’t function.”

None of the choices on the unemployment form — suspension, temporary layoff, discharge/performance — seemed to fit her situation. So in the space that demanded a “reason for separation,” she wrote: “Hurricane Charlie.”

For thousands of Floridians, yesterday was a day when services cut by the rampage of Charley’s 145-mph winds last week were being gradually — and sporadically — restored. Federal disaster assistance money began flowing, state officials cracked down on price gouging and postal workers handed out mail.

As bill delivery began yesterday, many storm victims — most without power, water or phone service — worried about what Charley and its aftermath would do to their savings.

In Punta Gorda, one of the hardest-hit areas, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown said $2 million had been issued to victims and more was on the way. More than 23,500 applications for aid had already been received.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge surveyed the damage in a helicopter. Mr. Thompson announced more than $11 million in help, with most of it going to support early-childhood-education centers.

Vowing to punish price gouging, state Attorney General Charlie Crist filed complaints against hotels in West Palm Beach and Lakeland, accusing them of jacking up room rates as the storm approached.

About 640,000 people remained without power yesterday, state officials said, holding to predictions it could take weeks to fully restore electricity. Nearly 100,000 still lacked local phone service after the storm, estimated to have caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes alone.

Shortly after sunrise, 60 workers at the heavily damaged main Post Office in Punta Gorda raised the U.S. flag, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and cheered as Postmaster Doug Burns declared, “We’re back in business.”

The building’s front windows and sliding glass doors were blown out, sections of the roof were missing and a sign from the Irish pub across the street leaned precariously against the front wall. Employees handed out mail in a drive-through operation.

With all the damage, the services of an electrician would seem to be in demand. But Ralph Guthrie was inching his way through the Port Charlotte unemployment line yesterday.

His company’s workshop was destroyed, along with all its service vehicles.

Even if he had tools and transportation, it could be weeks before anyone needed electrical service from Mr. Guthrie and his nine co-workers.

“It’s kind of hard to work on electricity when there ain’t none,” said Mr., Guthrie, 30, paying child support for two other children and caring for his 11-month-old. “The boss said, ‘You might want to come down [to the unemployment office] and do this.’”

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