PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – After getting a first look at the widespread damage left behind by Hurricane Charley (search), Florida residents were faced with the arduous task of sorting through the wreckage, and for some, starting over again.
President Bush (search) planned to visit the state Sunday to assess the damage, two days after declaring Florida a major disaster area. Charley killed at least 13 people -- including a man who was crushed outside his home when a banyan tree fell on him -- and left thousands homeless. The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda (search) and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County.
The eye of the worst hurricane to hit Florida in a dozen years passed directly over Punta Gorda, a town of 15,000, which took a devastating hit Friday. Standing by the shell of the clubhouse at the Windmill Village Trailer Park on Saturday, Barbara Seaman looked at the signature windmill -- all but one of the arms had been ripped off.
"Where do we go now? What do we do?" said Seaman, 69.
As a weakened Charley churned up the East Coast as a tropical storm Saturday, 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.
"Our worst fears have come true," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who surveyed the devastation by helicopter. The Category 4 storm was expected to cost Florida "at least several billion dollars," said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.
Charley cut northeast across Florida, hit open ocean again and bent back toward land, hitting South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region. The weakened but still-powerful system moved into North Carolina and up the eastern seaboard.
At 5 a.m. EDT Sunday, Charley's center was near Farmingville in the center of Long Island, N.Y., moving northeast at about 30 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph and was expected to be downgraded sometime Sunday.
"It's a weakening system and it's expected to be gone within several hours," Scott Reynolds, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Long Island, said Sunday morning.
In Florida, Charley gutted oceanfront homes and trailer parks, knocking out power to an estimated 2 million people as it crossed from southwest Florida to Daytona Beach.
The Category 4 storm was stronger than expected when the eye reached the mainland Friday, pummeling the coast with winds reaching 145 mph and a surge of sea water of 13 feet to 15 feet.
Extensive damage also was reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.
State officials said it was impossible to estimate the number of missing people, and that the search was slow in some areas. Downed power lines and debris made the work of searching for bodies "tedious and dangerous," said Mike McHargue, director of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
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."
Deputies stood guard over some bodies in areas not immediately accessible by ambulance. Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.
The American Red Cross set up more than 250 disaster relief shelters in Florida and 40 in the Carolinas. Staffers and volunteers were providing dry clothing, meals, first aid and counseling to victims.
"This is our largest hurricane disaster operation since Hurricane Andrew," said Red Cross president Marty Evans.
Bush disaster declaration makes federal money available to Charlotte, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry offered his "full support to the president and governor as the people of Florida rebuild their communities and their lives."
Three hospitals in the county sustained significant damage, Sallade said. Officials at Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda said they were evacuating all patients Saturday.
"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.
Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth named storms of the Atlantic hurricane season were out at sea Sunday. Tropical Storm Danielle formed Friday and developed into a hurricane Saturday but was several days from land.
Tropical Storm Earl had sustained winds of 45 mph Sunday and was centered about 105 miles south-southeast of Barbados. It prompted warnings on islands in the southeastern Caribbean Sea.