PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Rescuers rummaged through a chaotic landscape of pulverized homes and twisted metal Saturday, racing to tally Hurricane Charley’s “significant loss of life” and help thousands left homeless by its vicious winds and rain. At least 13 people were confirmed dead.
As a weakened Charley churned into the Carolinas and was downgraded to a tropical storm, newly sunny skies revealed its destruction in Florida, where emergency officials pronounced it the worst to wallop the state since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in damage.
“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.
Ten deaths had been confirmed in Charlotte County, said Wayne Sallade, the county’s director of emergency management, but no exact death toll was available. “It’s Andrew all over again,” Sallade said.
“We believe there’s significant loss of life, he said, adding later: “I would hope that it would be limited to dozens, if that.”
He said “thousands upon thousands of people” lost their homes. Hundreds were unaccounted for in the county, which includes Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, the apparent hardest-hit areas. Extensive damage was also reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.
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.”
Several medical centers were badly damaged, forcing hospital officials to evacuate patients to other facilities.
“Where do we go now? What do we do?” said 69-year-old Barbara Seaman, standing by the shell of a demolished building in Punta Gorda’s Windmill Village Trailer Park.
The storm and its 145-mph winds knocked out power to some 2 million homes and businesses as it crossed from the southwest coast at Punta Gorda to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach. President Bush, the governor’s brother, declared Florida a federal disaster area.