PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – Their homes demolished, their jobs gone, their retirement plans in ruin, countless Floridians desperatedly sought assistance Sunday and confronted a dawning awareness:

This anguish, this uncertainty, this constant pursuit of water, food and other bare essentials of life – this, in the wake of Hurricane Charley, is what has become of their lives for weeks, months, the foreseeable future.

Jean Owens, 79, who fled the storm and returned Sunday to her smashed trailer: “I’ve been hit hard today, haven’t I?”

Qwen Mejia, 45, a manicurist who worked at a shop destroyed by Charley: “Seventeen people work here. I’m just so devastated I can’t even breathe.”

Sandy Rolston, 61, a hurricane-savvy retiree who was raised in Florida: “It’s going to be a year before we’re back on our feet.”

President Bush visited Southwest Florida on Sunday and surveyed a landscape of destruction and despair, the residue of the catastrophe Charley delivered from Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast clear across the state to Daytona Beach on the East Coast.

The death toll: 16. The homeless count: tens of thousands. An initial damage assessment by state officials: $5 billion to $11 billion – just to insured residential property.

Officials began worrying about the secondary toll of the disaster. They said injuries and even deaths were occurring as people struggled with power tools and other unfamiliar clean-up equipment.

“The numbers of deaths are rising, not because of the storm but because of the aftermath,” said Dave Halstead, emergency services branch chief of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

A snapshot of some of the aid already delivered or on the way: 300,000 meals, emergency housing for 10,000 people, 30 mobile kitchens, 407 trucks hauling 2 million gallons of water, 162 trucks packed with 7 million pounds of ice, 60 trucks loaded with cots, blankets, portable toilets and other provisions.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency expanded its disaster aid zone from four to 25 counties. The American Red Cross called its response the largest since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two thousand insurance adjusters were on the ground, an equal number expected to join them.

Utilities labored to restore power to 985,000 customers, some of whom faced another 10 days or more without it.

“You take air conditioning for granted,” said Bev Gill, 42, of Punta Gorda.

She stood outside her damaged house, under the few remaining leaves of a grapefruit tree. Every few minutes, she started her car, just to feel some cool air. But not for long – she had to conserve gasoline, because none of that was available either.

“I can’t cry about my house,” Gill said. “But it makes me cry when I see all these people who have come here to help.”

Flying in a helicopter, riding in a bulletproof sports utility vehicle, accompanied by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president comforted some of Charley’s victims and promised that the assistance already flowing to the region would continue.

“It’s the job of the federal government and state government to surge resources as quickly as possible to disaster areas, and that’s exactly what is happening now,” he said, noting that tragedy often brings out the best in people.

“You know, out of these catastrophes the spirit of America really shines, and that spirit is neighbor helping neighbor,” Bush said. “So that’s the lesson here.”

Still, the task facing everyone – victims and those seeking to help them – was enormous.

“My savings are wiped out,” Charlie Kidd, 80, said as he sat by a portable generator loaned to him by a local church.

Even as Charley dissipated Sunday over New England, rescue teams in Southwest and Central Florida pressed forward with their search for victims, a maddeningly difficult task.

“We can’t even get through all the roads yet,” said Lt. Donna Roguska, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte County sheriff’s office. “We’re going through tires like mad.”

She said teams completed an initial inspection of the devastated mobile home parks in and near Punta Gorda, making a poignant rescue Saturday.

“They did find one lady who was in her closet,” Roguska said. “She thought the storm was still going on. We were able to get her out of there.”

Rescue and police crews were still searching other piles of rubble to make sure no one is trapped or injured, she said.

Air Force One carried the president to Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers, where he boarded the Marine One helicopter for a bird’s eye tour of the region.



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