PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – Marine One (search) flew low over demolished houses, downed power lines and uprooted palm trees here Sunday to give President Bush a bird's eye view of the destruction caused when Hurricane Charley roared through this southwest Florida city.
"A lot of people's lives are turned upside down," Bush said, standing next to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), on a residential street in Punta Gorda, one of the hardest hit areas.
Bush visited the state to assess the damage two days after declaring Florida a major disaster area. Charley killed at least 16 people and left thousands homeless. State officials said early estimates of the hurricane's residential property damage ranged from $5 billion to $11 billion.
"We've got ice and water moving in, trailers for people to live in are moving in," Bush said, standing in the steamy, midday heat. "The state is providing security so that people can have peace of mind that their neighborhoods will be safe."
Bush said federal assistance was being rushed to the area. After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, claiming 26 lives and causing nearly $20 billion in insured property losses, there were complaints that federal assistance was deployed too slowly.
"We're moving a lot of aid very quickly," Bush said. "All I can tell you is that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was on the ground yesterday morning and there's a lot of supplies surging this way."
Air Force One landed at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. Bush, his brother, FEMA director Mike Brown, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and press secretary Scott McClellan boarded Marine One, a helicopter, and flew north over the areas devastated by the hurricane.
From the helicopters transporting the presidential entourage, it was clear that the powerful hurricane, packing winds of up to 145 mph, was something to be feared. Debris from homes lay strewn across green, soggy fields. Hospitals were damaged. Tree tops were sheared off. Utility lines were down.
Marine One set down at an airport in Charlotte County where the hurricane flipped small planes upside down, damaged hangars and twisted pieces of metal around trees and power lines. Helicopter rotors blew tiny pieces of yellow insulation around the tarmac.
Bush was greeted at the airport by Rep. Porter Goss (search), R-Fla., the president's nominee to replace George Tenet at CIA director, and Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. Emergency management and rescue officials gathered around Bush as he located affected areas on a map spread open on the hood of a van.
Later, Bush's motorcade drove through downtown Punta Gorda (search), where buildings were missing roofs, fences were flattened and palm trees were already being cut into chunks for removal. The president walked down Trabue Avenue, which was littered with palm leaves, shingles and building parts.
"We did not fare this well," said Ron Hill, a contractor from nearby Murdock who was visiting friends in the neighborhood. "We had the back side of our roof stripped off."
As Bush toured the street, a few people in this heavily Republican part of the state joined together to chant "Four more years!"
Asked whether his quick trip to Florida carried political undertones, Bush replied: "And if I didn't come, they would have said he should have been here more rapidly."
Bush stopped outside the green cinder block home of Gary Nickols.
"We were going to try to ride it out but the neighbors across the street said, 'You better get out of there,'" Nickols said, adding that he escaped harm by staying inside a local church.
"Nearly everybody here that I've talked to had evacuated, as the state asked them to do and therefore, the loss of life was minimized," Bush said. "Still, too many people lost their lives, but nevertheless, it was not as significant as it could have been."