Body bags flown in to flattened town at storm's ground zero

Residents in the resort of Punta Gorda were told they would be spared the worst - and then the hurricane changed direction. Scores are now feared dead
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Florida knew it was coming. Hurricane Charley had been churning through the Caribbean for several days and the forecasters did not stint on their warnings. But this was a fickle storm, not willing to behave exactly as it was meant to. Its landfall came earlier than expected and its punch was much more deadly.

Florida knew it was coming. Hurricane Charley had been churning through the Caribbean for several days and the forecasters did not stint on their warnings. But this was a fickle storm, not willing to behave exactly as it was meant to. Its landfall came earlier than expected and its punch was much more deadly.

Charley revealed its cruelty after brushing almost harmlessly past the Florida Keys on Friday morning. As it made its approach to the Gulf coast of Florida it took an abrupt jog eastwards and, gathering energy from the warm waters below, it suddenly grew from a category two to a category four storm.

Tampa, which had been told it would take the brunt of the storm and therefore was largely prepared, was suddenly no longer in the track of the storm. Punta Gorda, a small coastal community 110 miles to the south, was not battened down the same way. But that is where Charley marched in. With no pause, it flattened ocean-front homes, tossed light aircraft and mashed mobile homes.

The official time for the landfall of this hurricane - the worst to hit Florida in at least 12 years - was 3.45pm as the eye passed over a barrier island just off the mainland. But we know when its 180mph winds finally took Punta Gorda in their grip. There is a clock tower near its small marina. At dawn yesterday its hands were stopped at half past four.

That is when Punta Gorda and other communities in Charlotte County became the "ground zero" of the devastation left by Charley all across the Sunshine State. Its path began there and travelled north-east through central Florida. It passed over the resort areas of Orlando and Daytona Beach before heading out to the Atlantic and coming to a second landfall yesterday in the Carolinas.

In towns and cities across Florida, sunrise yesterday revealed a landscape chopped and shredded. No storm of this power has hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992.

While it escaped the worst fury of the storm, the Orlando area was coping with blocked roads, damaged homes and flooding. Streets and highways were carpeted in pine needles and limbs of stately live oaks, spread evenly almost as if for a wedding ceremony. More than half its residents were without power last night, and it was feared that more than one and a half million are now in this predicament. Disney World, which closed on Friday, was open for business again, however.

But in Punta Gorda the task went far beyond clearing up debris and clearing roads. Officials warned throughout the day that the death toll in the area was set to climb. "It's Andrew all over again," declared Wayne Sallade, the director of emergency management for Charlotte County. "We believe there's significant loss of life."

A federal mortuary team was on its way to the area yesterday while the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office had sent deputies to each of the mobile parks to search for bodies. Punta Gorda, which lost the roof of its own emergency management centre when the storm hit and had to evacuate its principal hospital because of damage, had already ordered 60 body bags.

"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 clothes cupboard in her Punta Gorda apartment as the storm roared outside.

Patients and staff of a nursing centre in nearby Port Charlotte described their terror on Friday evening as Charley broke windows and ripped off portions of the roof. None of its residents was hurt, however. "The doors were being sucked open," said its administrator, Joyce Cuffe. "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 heads were hurting."

Dick Keen rode out the storm hiding in the bathroom of his Punta Gorda home. "The roof is partially gone. Every tree in the neighbourhood is gone," he said. "The damage is very consistent. The houses in my neighbourhood are all concrete block, so the houses themselves are OK. But the roofs took a beating, and everything outside of the main block part of the house is destroyed."

Officials in south-west Florida's Lee County said they thought 250,000 buildings were damaged. On islands off the county, millionaires' luxury homes copped a battering.

"You've got a lot of multimillion-dollar homes smashed around," Booch DeMarchi, a spokesman for the Lee County emergency management office, said. "Every house on upper Captiva Island was damaged and 60 per cent sustained major damage." On ritzy Useppa Island nearby, all 110 structures were damaged, 70 per cent seriously.

One man died in Fort Myers after he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and a banyan tree fell on him.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said, based on early estimates, 50,000 people were staying in shelters. FEMA said six hospitals were damaged or destroyed. Eighty per cent of the buildings in Charlotte County were damaged or destroyed.

In the historic Lake Eola district of Orlando, sunrise yesterday saw scores of residents emerging dazed from their homes to survey the mess of their neighbourhood. Large oaks blocked almost every street, electric wires draped around the limbs. "It was just awful," said Terry Roberts, a hospital worker who had joined about 30 other people queuing at a Starbucks, the only business operating.

Bill Lawless, a car dealer, swore in his driveway as the handle of his rake snapped before he could finish clearing it. The garage behind him was almost entirely blown away. Across the street, Toby Bowen was trying to clear her front garden with a battery-operated blower. She was making almost no headway and knew it. "It was so scary," she admitted. "But we survived. That's what counts."