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Charley Causes ‘Significant Loss of Life’

August 14, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Charley flattened oceanfront homes and caused a ``significant loss of life″ at a mobile home park, making thousands homeless before it roared north and struck the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

The strongest storm to strike Florida in a dozen years knocked out electrical service to an estimated 1.3 million homes and businesses as it crossed Florida from the southwest coast to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach, causing widespread damage to coastal areas and mobile home parks.

``I could hear the nails coming out of the roof. The walls were shaking violently, back and forth, back and forth. It was just the most amazing and terrifying thing,″ said Anne Correia, who spent two hours in a closet in her Punta Gorda apartment.

Charley’s generally northward course took it across open ocean, missing the westward curving shore of Georgia, before it made landfall for a second time on South Carolina’s Grand Strand resort region. The area was nearly empty after a mandatory evacuation of some of the area’s 180,000 tourists and residents.

The storm still packed hurricane-force wind of 75 mph, considerably weaker than its sustained wind speed of 145 mph Friday.

In addition to the hard-hit mobile home park, Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County’s director of emergency management, said there were confirmed deaths in at least three other areas in the county, but an exact number was unavailable, and might not be for days.

Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking in Tallahassee, said, ``The good news is we train for this and we’re well coordinated ... we’re going to do everything we can to provide support.″

There were five confirmed storm-related deaths elsewhere in the state. Earlier, Charley killed three people in Cuba and one in Jamaica, and tornados spun off by Tropical Storm Bonnie killed three people in North Carolina.

The federal government was sending a 25-member mortuary team to help process bodies.

Hundreds of people were unaccounted for in Florida’s Charlotte County, which includes Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, and thousands were homeless, Sallade said. He compared the devastation with 1992′s Hurricane Andrew, which was directly blamed for the deaths of 26 people, most in South Florida. Extensive damage was also reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.

``It’s Andrew all over again,″ he said. ``We believe there’s significant loss of life.″

There are 31 mobile home parks in the county that suffered major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, said Bob Carpenter, a Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. He said teams were sent to each park to search for bodies and survivors, but getting into them was difficult.

``We just couldn’t get the vehicles in _ there is so much debris,″ he said.

Rescuing people who may be trapped is the top priority, said state emergency management director Craig Fugate.

``If we’re going to change the outcome for anybody that’s been injured or trapped, we know time is of the essence,″ he said.

Dan Strong, 51, returned to his home in Biehls Mobile Home Park in Punta Gorda and found it had been destroyed.

``Everything is gone,″ Strong said as he dug through the rubble trying to salvage photographs, clothes and other belongings.

At 11 a.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 35 miles south of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and moving north-northeast at 28 mph. Forecasters expected Charley to increase in speed. Its maximum sustained wind speed was near 85 mph with higher gusts.

A hurricane warning was in effect from the South Santee River in South Carolina to the Virginia-North Carolina state line. A tropical storm warning extended north to Sandy Hook, N.J., and a tropical storm watch was in effect to the Merrimack River in Massachusetts.

National Guard troops were on duty in North Carolina, where a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for vulnerable coastal areas hit less than two weeks ago by Hurricane Alex.

More tornadoes were possible, warned Renee Hoffman, spokeswoman for North Carolina’s Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. ``Don’t go out, don’t drive in these heavy winds and rain,″ she said.

Charley was forecast to spread sustained wind 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.

President Bush declared a major disaster area in Florida.

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.″

An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated in anticipation of the hurricane, which 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.

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.″

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.

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Associated Press writers Mark Long in Fort Myers, Ken Thomas in Key West, Mitch Stacy and Brendan Farrington in Tampa, Vickie Chachere in Sarasota, Mike Branom and Mike Schneider in Orlando and Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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