PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – Looking solemn and perspiring heavily after touring this hurricane-ravaged town, President Bush said Sunday that he had talked to residents whose lives have been turned “upside down” and assured them: “Help is on the way.”

“We need to let them know that a lot of material is coming – things like water and ice and trailers, so people can have peace of mind and know that their neighborhoods will be safe,” Bush said before thanking and hugging emergency-services workers at the battered Charlotte County Airport.

The president spent about 20 minutes flying over the Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda coastal area in his Marine One helicopter.

This town is “ground zero” in a state Bush declared a federal major disaster area Friday as it was being slammed by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm with winds in excess of 145 mph.

When he landed at the battered airport here Sunday morning, the president and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were briefed on damage in the area by Charlotte County Emergency Management Director Wayne P. Sallade.

“I briefed him with a map spread over the hood of a truck and we talked about the fact that we are not alone, that Hendry County and Aracadia also were hit hard,” Sallade said.

Noting that Bush seemed to be “somewhat shocked at what he saw,” Sallade said, “My hope is that the president understands that natural disasters have to be dealt with. We cannot put them aside.”

Sallade told the president that one of his greatest concerns now is “dealing with the needs of the elderly” and restoring public services.

“We’ve done the search and rescue, and now it is time to take care of their creature comforts,” he said.

After his helicopter tour, Bush was joined on a motor and foot tour by Sallade and U.S. Reps. Porter Goss and Mark Foley, both Florida Republicans. They visited torn and upended mobile-home parks and battered neighborhoods before stopping in Punta Gorda’s once-quaint downtown, where office buildings, churches and shops appeared clawed by the storm.

Although many here are frustrated by the lack of water and electricity – some have complained that it took too long to get emergency services started – several bystanders applauded Bush when he emerged from a black SUV.

“I can’t tell you how many people came up to him and how many he hugged,” said Sallade, who took the opportunity to lobby Bush for greater resources for his emergency management efforts.

“I made the point to the president and to (the) FEMA director … that we’ve had so much focus since Sept. 11 on homeland security and that’s fine,” Sallade said. “The people of this community were terrorized between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, and they need resources, too.”

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