- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — Nancy Cuffaro was back in business, serving up New York-style pizza and apple turnovers in a restaurant still dark and sweltering almost two weeks after Hurricane Charley knocked out the electricity.

Like many shops just north of Charlotte Harbor, Mrs. Cuffaro’s place, Romano’s Italian Bakery, Deli and Pizza, was doing what it could with heavy damage and no power. As gas ovens and generator-powered refrigerators hummed, customers ate outside in the 90-degree heat while workers began replacing a demolished plate-glass window.

“We opened this business 10 months ago,” said Mrs. Cuffaro, 47, who rode out the storm with partner Salvatore Mannino in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. “Now we have to start all over from scratch. Thank God we’re here, and we’re OK.”

Scores of businesses were damaged by the Aug. 13 hurricane, which caused an estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage to homes, businesses and personal possessions, more than any other hurricane in Florida since Andrew in 1992. Specific property-damage estimates and economic losses for businesses weren’t available yesterday.

Most traffic lights along U.S. Route 41 remain out, but merchants along the road are dragging ruined carpet and other debris to the curb and getting back to work.

Many, like Romano’s — which Mrs. Cuffaro estimated will lose a “couple hundred thousand dollars” from property damage, lost sales and spoiled food — have put hand-lettered signs by the road to let people know they are open.

The thump, thump, thumping of gas-powered generators is a common sound.

A long line of cars formed this week at the McDonald’s drive-through under the shell of its demolished sign. The facade of a furniture store looked bombed-out, but merchandise was for sale under a spacious tent in the parking lot. A gas station by the harbor was up and running — absent the large roof that used to cover the pumps.

Some businesses were so badly damaged that they will be closed for months. The Charlotte County Economic Development Office opened an assistance center this week to help business owners obtain disaster loans and other help to get back on their feet.

Harbor Nissan was selling and fixing cars even though its showroom was all but wiped away by the storm. Only the steel frame and some hanging insulation remained.

General manager Angelico Tomacruz said the business is fixing tires and doing other minor repairs free of charge. He also has lent cars to the sheriff’s office and a truck to the Salvation Army to deliver meals. He has sold a few, too, although he says the storm damaged or destroyed 75 percent of his vehicle stock.

“We want to get back to being normal and let the community know we’re here to support them,” said Mr. Tomacruz, 36, who has been living in a trailer out back. “They’re going to remember who helped them out.”

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