‘It looks like a bomb zone, everything’s gone’

AS the remnants of Hurricane Charley disintegrated off the New England coast yesterday, Florida residents began the massive task of cleaning up.

State officials say that the storm estimated caused damages as high as €9 billion for insured homes alone.

President George W Bush flew over the most heavily damaged areas in a Marine helicopter yesterday before landing in this retirement haven of 15,000 people, which was devastated by Charley. The storm killed at least 16 people in Florida - including a man who was crushed outside his home when a banyan tree fell on him - and left thousands temporarily homeless.

“All the clothes that I’ve got now is just what I’m wearing now,” one resident, George Nickols, told the president.

Chad Maxwell shovelled up soggy ceiling tiles and shattered glass yesterday from the floor of the real estate office where he works in Punta Gorda. Looking at the coffee shop next door, which lost its second floor, and a florist with only one wall standing, he described his impression of downtown: “Beirut”.

“It looks like a bomb zone. Everything’s gone. Everything’s tore up,” he said.

The Rev Leroy Martin set up two dozen chairs and laid bibles on them outside his small Punta Gorda church, unsure whether the darkened building was safe for services.

“I guess it is at a time like this when you realise the significance of spiritual values when everything else has blown away,” Martin said.

The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared 25 counties eligible for disaster aid after the worst hurricane to hit Florida in a dozen years.

From his helicopter, 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, where he was briefed by officials coordinating recovery efforts.

Asked about why he made such a quick trip to Florida in this election year, Bush said: “Yeah, if I didn’t come, they would’ve said we should have been here more rapidly.”

As a weakened Charley churned up the East Coast and was downgraded to a tropical depression, emergency officials pronounced it the worst hurricane to wallop Florida since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in insured property losses.

The luxury vacation haven of North Captiva Island, which can be reached only by air and boat, was divided in two by Charley’s storm surge, creating a new inlet that appears to be several hundred yards long, Lee County spokesman Pat O’Rourke said. The island’s main road was submerged, but the extent of damage to homes was not determined.

State officials said it was impossible to estimate the number of missing people, and downed power lines and debris made the task of searching for bodies “tedious and dangerous,” said Mike McHargue, director of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

An initial damageestimate of $5 billion to $11 billion was based on the value of homes and insurance policies in the storm’s path, said Tami Torres, a spokeswoman for state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Uninsured homes, business losses and damage to automobiles were not included.

Thirty-one mobile-home parks in Charlotte County sustained major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, 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.”

Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

In Florida, Charley knocked out power to an estimated 2 million people as it hit southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, pummelling the coast with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of sea water of 13 feet to 15 feet.

The storm devastated citrus groves, and could have a “huge impact” on this year’s crop, said Andy LaVigne, chief executive of the trade group Florida Citrus Mutual.

The American Red Cross set up more than 250 disaster relief shelters in Florida and 40 in the Carolinas. Charlotte County officials requested help in obtaining necessities such as towels, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes for volunteers.

Three hospitals in the county sustained significant damage, Sallade said. Officials at Charlotte Regional Medical Centre said they were evacuating all patients on Saturday, and spokesman Josh Cutter said yesterday that the hospital hoped to reopen within three weeks.

“This place just isn’t safe,” said Peggy Greene, chief nursing officer. She said windows were blown out, part of the roof was blown off, and there was no power or phone service.

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson warned of price ‘gouging’, and said arrests would be made if instances are discovered.

“People need to watch out for the scam artists,” Mr Bronson said at a state briefing. “They’re out there. They always are.”

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