Hurricane rips through Florida on a rampage of death and destruction

Click to follow
The Independent US

The death toll was still rising last night in the wake of Hurricane Charley, after the storm ripped across central Florida. It left a trail of devastation stretching from the small beach town of Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast, where it made landfall, to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic.

The death toll was still rising last night in the wake of Hurricane Charley, after the storm ripped across central Florida. It left a trail of devastation stretching from the small beach town of Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast, where it made landfall, to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic.

With 20 people confirmed dead in Florida and the Caribbean, US authorities warned of "significant loss of life" after the storm crashed in on Friday night, with winds gusting up to 180mph and a storm surge of 14 feet. Ten of the deaths were in Charlotte County, where Punta Gorda took the brunt of the hurricane.

Sixty body bags were ordered to cope with fatalities, while "thousands and thousands" of people were left homeless and two million without power. In Lee County alone, more than 250,000 structures were damaged, including many multimillion-dollar waterfront homes.

Three cities in southwest Florida ­ Arcadia, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda ­ were without running water, damage to hospitals meant patients had to be hurriedly evacuated, and three fire stations were destroyed. The Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, described seeing "entire communities totally flattened". "Our worst fears have come true," he said.

Hundreds remained unaccounted for last night, and officials said a final death toll could take days to arrive at. Hurricane Charley is already the most serious to hit the US since Andrew, which claimed 26 lives 12 years ago.

Uncertainty about the numbers of dead from the storm lingered, in part, because of difficulties faced by rescue personnel in getting into scores of mobile home parks in the county.

Some spoke of a lack of preparedness. Forecasters had suggested that landfall would come 110 miles further north in Tampa. Altogether, almost two million residents and tourists were ordered to flee their homes before Charley's arrival, representing the largest peacetime evacuation in US history. But Punta Gorda, apparently, had not expected to suffer the storm's worst punch.

President George Bush, who declared a federal emergency in several counties of Florida, will visit the state today, the White House said. Meanwhile, as many as 5,000 national guardsmen were being deployed, mainly to Charlotte County, to help with the rescue operation and initial clean-up.

The storm closed airports and disrupted the holiday plans of thousands. In Orlando, the main theme parks, including Disney World, were forced to close but had already reopened by morning yesterday.

Charley had curved out over the Atlantic by last night and made a second landfall, with far diminished winds of about 75 mph, on the coast of South Carolina. It was expected to weaken and lose hurricane status while tracking up the eastern seaboard of the United States last night and today.

"Everything is gone," said Dan Strong, 51, as he returned to Biehl's mobile home park in Punta Gorda to try to salvage something of a life wrecked overnight by the elements. His home was destroyed and all he could do was claw for belongings and mementoes from the rubble left behind.

Comments