Hurricane Survivors See Small Signs of Progress

$2 Million in Disaster Payments Handed Out; Many Still Lack Power, Water


Fla. (Aug. 17) -- Federal disaster assistance money started flowing to Hurricane Charley's victims and postal workers handed out mail Tuesday outside their damaged building, but hundreds of thousands still had no phones, no running water, no diapers for the baby and no gas to fill the tank.

Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown visited Punta Gorda on Tuesday and said $2 million in payments had already been issued to victims, with more on the way. He said the agency had received 23,500 applications seeking relief, including 13,000 on Monday alone.

Officials estimate Charley caused as much as $11 billion in damage to insured homes alone when it tore across the state Friday.

''We have just started the recovery process of Hurricane Charley,'' Brown said. He said FEMA was making preparations to house up to 10,000 people in temporary shelters, calling the relief effort ''a textbook operation.''

There were other small signs of progress Tuesday.

At 7:45 a.m., the U.S. flag was raised at the heavily damaged main Post Office in Punta Gorda as 60 employees said the Pledge of Allegiance, cheered and applauded. Then, they went to work for the first time since Charley struck on Friday.

''We're back in business,'' declared Postmaster Doug Burns.

The building's front windows and sliding glass doors were blown out, sections of the roof were missing and insulation from a nearby business was plastered across rental mail boxes. Since people could not get to the boxes, Postal Service employees handed out mail in a drive-through operation.

Attorney General Charlie Crist filed price gouging and unfair trade practices complaints Tuesday against two motels, accusing them of jacking up room rates. One advertised $39.99 on a billboard but asked for $109 and $119 a room, Crist said.

''It is unthinkable that anyone that anyone would try to take advantage of neighbors at a time like this,'' Crist said. More than 100 state investigators were in the field, and most of the initial complaints are about lodging rates.

''I haven't had a hot meal in days, but I'm doing all right,'' said 82-year-old Norma Chapman, who drove to a half-demolished strip mall in Punta Gorda Tuesday to pick up six bags of ice. She was still without any electricity or running water.

Gov. Jeb Bush, touring hard-hit central Florida communities, asked the public to be patient.

''No one is suggesting this is easy,'' Bush said. ''These are difficult times, but if people have a little bit of perspective those services are going to be restored real soon.''

About 640,000 people remained without power Tuesday, state officials said, estimating it could take weeks to get electricity fully restored. At least 150,000 were without local phone service.

Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte were among the hardest-hit areas, and 25 of Florida's 67 counties were designated federal disaster areas.

Early Tuesday, state emergency management spokeswoman Tameeka Forbes said the death toll had been raised from 18 to 19, but no further details on the new reported death were immediately released. Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.

A woman who arrived at a temporary medical center while Brown was touring the facility later died of cardiac arrest, but John Caprio, team commander of the medical unit, said it was not immediately clear if her death was related to the storm.

Brown had said earlier it could take several weeks to find all the victims, and officials still had no count Monday of how many people remained unaccounted for, a mission complicated by toppled power lines, spotty phone communication and roads littered with debris. However, early estimates of hundreds of people missing are probably inflated.

Frustrations began to emerge on a typically muggy day as people complained about the lack of power and access to their neighborhoods. Tempers flared at a bridge crossing to Fort Myers Beach on Monday when officers used a stun gun to subdue a man in a minivan who wanted to enter the area still closed to residents, WINK-TV said.

Law enforcement officials in DeSoto County said Monday that six people had been arrested in Arcadia on burglary charges for alleged looting. County spokesman Sgt. Jim Troiano said some homeowners had posted signs warning looters to stay away.