PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – The death toll from Hurricane Charley (search) rose early Saturday, when a county official said there had a been "significant loss of life" at a mobile home park and deputies were standing guard over stacks of bodies because the area was inaccessible to ambulances.
Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County (search)'s director of emergency management, said early Saturday that there were "a number of fatalities" at the mobile home park, and that there were confirmed deaths in at least three other areas in the county.
The eye of the worst hurricane to hit Florida in a dozen years passed directly over Punta Gorda (search), a town of 15,000 which took a devastating hit Friday.
A slightly weaker Charley bore down on the South Carolina coast early Saturday, and the center was expected to approach the coast by morning.
In Florida, hundreds of people were missing in Charlotte and thousands were left homeless, Sallade said. He compared the devastation with 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which the National Hurricane Center directly blamed for the deaths of 26 people, most in South Florida.
"It's Andrew all over again," he said. "We believe there's significant loss of life."
Sallade did not have an estimate on a specific number of fatalities. He said it may take days to get a final toll.
Extensive damage was also reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.
President Bush declared a major disaster area in Florida, making federal money available to Charlotte, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties. One million customers were reported without power statewide, including all of Hardee County and Punta Gorda.
The Category 4 storm was stronger than expected when the eye reached the mainland at Charlotte Harbor, pummeling the coast with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of sea water of 13 to 15 feet.
Charley was forecast to spread sustained winds of about 40 mph to 60 mph across inland portions of eastern North Carolina and to dump 3 to 6 inches of rain beginning Saturday morning, forecasters said. Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency.
In South Carolina, roads clogged Friday night as tourists and residents of the state's Grand Strand -- beaches and high-dollar homes and hotels -- heeded a mandatory evacuation order. Gov. Mark Sanford had urged voluntary evacuation earlier Friday.
Three hospitals in Charlotte County sustained significant damage, Sallade said, and officials at Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda said they were evacuating all patients Saturday.
More than 200 ambulances -- many from southeast Florida -- were organized to transfer patients to other hospitals in Orlando, Sarasota, Tampa and Lee County.
"We really have to get the patients out of here. 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.
Among those seeking treatment was Marty Rietveld, showered with broken glass when the sliding glass door at his home was smashed by a neighbor's roof that blew off. Rietveld broke his leg, and his future son-in-law suffered a punctured leg artery.
"We are moving," said Rietveld's daughter, Stephanie Rioux. "We are going out of state."
At least 20 patients with storm injuries were reported at a hospital in Fort Myers.
A crash on Interstate 75 in Sarasota County killed one person, and a wind gust caused a truck to collide with a car in Orange County, killing a young girl. A man who stepped outside his house to smoke a cigarette died when a banyan tree fell on him in Fort Myers, authorities said.
At the Charlotte County Airport, wind tore apart small planes, and one flew down the runway as if it were taking off. The storm spun a parked pickup truck 180 degrees, blew the windows out of a sheriff's deputy's car and ripped the roof off an 80-foot-by 100-foot building.
Martin said he saw homes ripped apart at two trailer parks.
"There were four or five overturned semi trucks -- 18-wheelers -- on the side of the road," he said.
In Desoto County outside Arcadia, several dead cows, wrapped in barbed wire, littered the roadside.
The hurricane rapidly gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico after crossing Cuba and swinging around the Florida Keys as a more moderate Category 2 storm Friday morning. An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated in anticipation of the strongest hurricane to strike Florida since Andrew in 1992.
Charley reached landfall at 3:45 p.m. EDT, when the eye passed over barrier islands off Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, some 110 miles southeast of the Tampa Bay area.
Charley hit the mainland 30 minutes later, with storm surge flooding of 10 to 15 feet, the hurricane center said. Nearly 1 million people live within 30 miles of the landfall.
The state put 5,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen on alert to help deal with the storm, but only 1,300 had been deployed by Friday night, a state emergency management spokeswoman said.
At a nursing center in Port Charlotte, Charley broke windows and ripped off portions of the roof, but none of the more than 100 residents or staff was injured, administrator Joyce Cuffe said.
"The doors were being sucked open," Cuffe said. "A lot of us were holding the doors, trying to keep them shut, using ropes, anything we could to hold the doors shut. There was such a vacuum, our ears and head were hurting."
At 5 a.m. EDT, the center of the storm was in the Atlantic Ocean, about 115 miles south-southwest of Charleston, S.C., and moving north-northeast at 25 mph. Forecasters expected Charley to increase in speed. Maximum sustained winds were near 85 mph with higher gusts.
The center was expected to approach the South Carolina coast later Saturday. A hurricane warning was issued from Altamaha Sound, Ga., north to the North Carolina-Virginia state line. From there, a tropical storm watch extended north to Sandy Hook, including the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. A tropical storm warning was issued from Sandy Hook north to Merrimack River, including the New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.
Spared the worst of the storm was the Tampa Bay area, where about a million people had been told to leave their homes. Some drove east, only to find themselves in the path of the Charley.
"I feel like the biggest fool," said Robert Angel of Tarpon Springs, who sought safety in a motel. "I spent hundreds of dollars to be in the center of a hurricane. Our home is safe, but now I'm in danger."
The fourth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, Danielle, formed Friday but posed no immediate concern to land. The fifth may form as early as Saturday and threaten islands in the southeastern Caribbean Sea.