CBSN

Taking Stock In Charley's Wake

Cars try to avoid debris on Route 17, west of Punta Gorda, Fla., Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004, after Hurricane Charley moved through the area on Friday.
AP
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 15 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. Florida officials predicted damage from the Category 4 storm could top $15 billion - as much as the earthquake in Northridge, Calif., in 1994.

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."

Deputies were standing guard over some bodies because they were in areas not immediately accessible by ambulances.

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.

"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.

"It looks like a war zone - power lines down everywhere, street signs, pieces of roofs blown off, huge trees uprooted," said Buddy Martin, managing editor of the Charlotte Sun. "Everywhere you looked there was just devastation."

CBS News Correspondent James Acosta says what's lost in all the destruction is not just how many people died - that will be known in time - but why so many people stayed behind, even bearing in mind predictions that Charley would hit in the Tampa area.

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. Some 1.3 million remained without power Saturday afternoon, emergency officials said.

President Bush, the governor's brother, declared Florida a federal disaster area and sent a mortuary team to help process bodies. The president planned a visit Sunday to survey damage, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, in a statement, offered "heartfelt sympathies." Florida is a key battleground state for the November election.

The hurricane rapidly gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico after crossing Cuba and swinging around the Florida Keys as a more moderate Category 2 storm Friday morning. An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated in anticipation.

When it hit, the storm upended trucks, twisted traffic lights into unrecognizable shapes and lifted entire houses atop neighbors' homes. Entire trailer parks were splintered to their foundations and dazed residents wandered around neighborhoods, gathering miscellaneous belongings. At the Port Charlotte airport, small planes were stacked and snapped apart like toys cast off by an angry child.

"I've been through typhoons in Guam and I've never seen anything like this," said Charles Charwat, an 84-year-old retiree in Ormond Beach, on Florida's east coast.

There were five confirmed storm-related deaths elsewhere in the state. Earlier, Charley killed three people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

As recovery efforts began, Florida officials warned against price gouging and said violators would face heavy fines.

Florida Attorney General Henry McMaster said the state has gotten over 100 calls about potential gouging as a result of Charley. McMaster stressed, "One of the things we will not let happen is victims be victimized a second time."

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."

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.

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.

"This place just isn't safe," said Peggy Greene, chief nursing officer at Charlotte Regional. She said windows were blown out, part of the roof was blown off, and there was no power or phone service.

Hundreds of miles north, Charley's course took it across open ocean, missing the westward curving shore of Georgia. It made its second landfall on South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region, which was nearly empty after a mandatory evacuation of some of the area's 180,000 tourists and residents.

The weakening storm sloshed through North Carolina's eastern counties on Saturday, doing little more than damaging trees and causing power outages.

The storm was moving toward the north-northeast at about 30 mph, and storm warnings and watches were posted along the coast as far as Massachusetts.

The foul weather only lasted about a half-hour in any given spot in North Carolina.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency and said state police, the highway department and the National Guard all had extra staff on standby.

The main threat in Virginia was the potential for heavy rain, the National Weather Service said.

Farther up the shore, in Maryland, a heavy stream of traffic flowed inland as families scrapped their weekend beach plans and headed home to escape the rain and wind expected up to 45 mph.

Steady rain in New Jersey drove vacationers off the beaches at Cape May, and lifeguards tied down stands as the remnants of Charley streamed northward.

CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen calls Charley a "shell" of its former self, but says caution is still key as the storm moves up the eastern seaboard.

As people unbattened their hatches and emerged into the sunlight, the stories of nature's fury flowed.

"I could hear the nails coming out of the roof," said Anne Correia, who spent two hours in a closet in her Punta Gorda apartment.