PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Still smarting over the loss of their homes, Hurricane Charley's (search) victims turned out by the hundreds in 90-degree heat Tuesday to cope with the storm's latest blow to their lives — the mass shutdown of businesses that has left them without jobs.
"Charley laid me off," said Rose Vito, a 57-year-old telemarketing assistant in red-plaid pajamas, lined up outside the Employ Florida (search) mobile benefits station in Port Charlotte's Harold Avenue Recreational Center parking lot. "Without phones and computers, they can't function."
None of the choices on the unemployment form — suspension, temporary layoff, discharge/performance — seemed to fit her situation. So in the space that demanded a "reason for separation," she wrote: "Hurricane Charlie."
For thousands of Floridians, Tuesday was a day when services cut off by the rampage of Charley's 145-mph winds last week were being gradually — and sporadically — restored. Federal disaster assistance money began flowing, state officials cracked down on price gouging and postal workers handed out mail.
The death toll stood at 19, but officials in Charlotte County said three new deaths may have been linked to the aftermath of Charley. The three people died Monday night in a crash at an intersection where the traffic lights weren't working.
Before lashing Florida on Friday, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.
As bill delivery began Tuesday, many storm victims — most without power, water or phone service — worried about what Charley and its aftereffects would do to their savings.
In Punta Gorda, one of the hardest-hit areas, Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) director Mike Brown said $2 million had been issued to victims and more was on the way. More than 23,500 applications for aid had already been received.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge toured the damaged in a helicopter. Thompson announced more than $11 million in help, with the majority of the going to support early childhood education centers.
"It's about helping people restore some sense of normalcy in their lives," Ridge said.
Vowing to punish price gouging, state Attorney General Charlie Crist filed complaints against hotels in West Palm Beach and Lakeland, accusing them of jacking up room rates as the storm approached.
About 640,000 people remained without power Tuesday, state officials said, holding to predictions it could take weeks to fully restore electricity. Nearly 100,000 still lacked local phone service from the storm, estimated to have caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes alone.
Gov. Jeb Bush asked the public to be patient.
"No one is suggesting this is easy," Bush said. "These are difficult times, but if people have a little bit of perspective, those services are going to be restored real soon."
Shortly after sunrise, 60 workers at the heavily damaged main Post Office in Punta Gorda raised the U.S. flag, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and cheered as Postmaster Doug Burns declared, "We're back in business."
The building's front windows and sliding glass doors were blown out, sections of the roof were missing and a sign from the Irish pub across the street leaned precariously against the front wall. Employees handed out mail in a drive-through operation.
Free food, ice and water were distributed across the region.
"I haven't had a hot meal in days, but I'm doing all right," said 82-year-old Norma Chapman, who drove to a half-demolished strip mall in Punta Gorda Tuesday to pick up six bags of ice.
With all the damage, the services of an electrician would seem to be in demand. But Ralph Guthrie was inching his way through the Port Charlotte unemployment line Tuesday.
His company's workshop was destroyed, along with all its service vehicles. Even if he had tools and transportation, it could be weeks before anyone needed electrical service from Guthrie and his nine co-workers.
"It's kind of hard to work on electricity when there ain't none," said Guthrie, 30, paying child support for two kids and caring for his 11-month-old. "The boss said, `You might want to come down here (the unemployment office) and do this."'
Wilbert McTier, a benefits administrator out of Fort Lauderdale, said the mobile center had served 266 people Monday "without any advertising." They surpassed that number by 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Dolores Jean Rush, a nurse at Charlotte County Regional Medical Center, said she would be out of work for four to six weeks because the hospital was so badly damaged.
"I think unemployment takes four weeks to start," said the 52-year-old woman, the major breadwinner for her household and her disabled son's. "I'm probably not going to see a damn nickel."
Despite her uncertain future and the damage at her home, Vito emerged from the air-conditioned employment trailer with a smile and a wave.
"Thank you, everybody. We love you all," she shouted to the state workers. "And can I ask each of you to say a thank you prayer tonight?"
Replied McTier: "Amen."