PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) – Moments before Hurricane Charley came to Burnt Store Road, Dan Mahoney, 72, was out on the screen-porch in a wicker chair, sipping a cold one and listening to the umpteenth weatherman chattering on about how the storm wasn’t going to touch his town.

The phone rang.

It was his daughter, Leanne, at her house in Cape Coral, 15 miles away. She didn’t sound happy to hear his voice.

“You dumb SOB!” she shrieked. “Just WHAT are you still doing there?”

“Where?”

“Charley’s coming right at you! I’m here in my closet with a mattress up against the door and you – you’re still at HOME?”

Mahoney felt a sting of panic in his throat.

“Get under a mattress, Dad!” his daughter barked. “Get under a mattress! Do it, now!”

He hung up and went to the bedroom. Better pull the blinds down, he thought. As he did, he heard something, a heavy whew-whew-whew-whew, and then a crash – the back window shattering – and then a metallic screeching.

The roof was lifting off, curling up, up and away.

He backed up, cold-wet palms against the wall. Stay right here, he told himself. Just stay against the wall. You’ll be all right.

One day, perhaps, the old-timers around Punta Gorda may spin yarns about the hurricane of ’04, how it killed indiscriminately, how it flattened home after home, how it caused billions of dollars in damage.

The elderly of Eagle Point Mobile Park will write their own chapter: Their 1980s, aluminum-and-wood trailers and carports were among the first to feel Charley’s 145-mph fist.

Their homes once stood along Alligator Creek, a bayou and Burnt Store Road. Now they mark the starting point of a long, wicked gash across central Florida, a gash left by a tempest many say was the worst since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Fortunately, nearly all of the 240 mobile homes in Eagle Point had been evacuated by 4 p.m. on Friday – the hour Charley’s eye passed over this community of 55-and-older snowbirds and retirees.

Four homes, however, were still occupied.

Bob Thatell, 81, and his wife, Avis, 75, first got acquainted with Charley this way:

They had returned to Eagle Point around 9 p.m. Thursday after a fine trip in their motor home to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, on Florida’s eastern seaboard. Bob figured the storm forecasters were hyping their broadcasts a bit.

“He told me, ‘It’ll be a Category 2, and the biggest problem will be the storm surge. We can ride it out,”‘ Avis said.

So, that night, and for most of the next day, the Thatells roped together their kitchen chairs, cleared the floor, heaped their most valued possessions atop beds and on closet shelves, and waited.

along with their poodles, Brie and Beau.

And then, Bob said, it started.

“First I heard this racket: Bam! bam! bam! bam! bam! The houses around us were being torn apart, and sheets of aluminum, branches and pine cones were rattling on top of the carport like a kettle drum. It was strange: The wind made no noise. At least, none that I could hear. So I went outside.”

In the lee of his L-shaped trailer, Bob Thatell gazed, blood thrumming in his head, at the 10-foot-wide wind tunnel between his home and a neighbor’s.

“Everything was flying: downspouts, insulation, bushes, screens – big sheets of aluminum were scratching along the walls of my neighbor’s house as they passed. And the wind took the metal and wrapped it around the tree trunks or poles or in the stumpy branches of the trees as though it were taffy.”

Then, BAM! A huge branch struck the carport. “But I wasn’t scared. I was ENJOYING it. I was. It’s crazy … Maybe I’m crazy.”

Avis, at that very moment, was crouched in the bathtub. She held tight to Beau, while Brie lay his fluffy head on her neck. She heard ripping of metal, crashing glass, rapid, heavy thunks on the roof.

Cold, fat drops began to fall from the ceiling. Shivering as she cradled her poodles, she thought: If you stay calm, the dogs will stay calm, too.

People had always called Eagle Point “The Park” – not because it was a place to park a trailer, but because it was green and well-tended, its streets lined with palms, Norfolk Island pine, mangroves and Brazilian pepper trees.

Now, as the morning sun returned, the tree trunks, those still upright, were sadly bare, like daisies plucked of their flowers.

The streets were crowded with branches – but also with towels, bits of ceramic Christmas trees, locked doors still in their frames, propane tanks, a scarecrow doll, bicycles, cracked mirrors.

The scent of fresh pine floated in the air. An alarm clock tweeted and tweeted.

Johnnie Taylor, 60, a retired house repairman, picked his way carefully through the debris. Taylor, one of Eagle Point’s board members, had evacuated with his wife, Joann, to Punta Gorda Isles, a condo 3 miles away. Charley caught up with them, however; the roof collapsed on the very bed in which they were to sleep.

So now, on Saturday, the Taylors were back, thrilled to find their two-bedroom mobile home largely intact. More than half of the homes in the park were beyond repair.

They picked up scattered yard tools and, with other returnees, began to rake and shovel debris to the side of the roads. Cleanup wasn’t too difficult, for the most part, until Taylor stumbled across a few things lying in the road on 4th Street.

There were photographs, family pictures and such, and poking out from a pile of shredded aluminum, a videotape. It was marked, “Family Reunion: 1992.”

Taylor read the words a few times, then put down his rake. He walked slowly up to the trailer that had surrendered the tape. It was a home no longer; the roofed had caved, the walls leaned. Still, he laid the tape down, gently.

Perhaps the family would return soon and find it.

At 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, 51 residents of Eagle Point gathered inside the only structure in the neighborhood not to see significant damage: the concrete-block Recreation Hall.

By then, county officials had confirmed that the worst damage had occurred in mobile home parks. There were 31 parks in Charlotte County, containing about 15,000 trailers, and most of the people who lived in them were elderly, and vulnerable.

There wasn’t a soul in the Recreation Hall who failed to understand the dimensions of that word – vulnerable.

There was Opal Harms, 67. To breathe, she needed her oxygen tanks full and operating. At that moment, she was down to her last two 5-hour tanks. The county fire marshal had told her to try Charlotte Regional Hospital to see if they could accommodate her, but he made no promises.

There was Yoshiko Young, 68, a diabetic, whose hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t keep water in a cup.

Ann Volk, 90, who looks to weigh no more than her age, grimaced and shook her head when asked to describe how she survived Charley. She, along with Tom Chicano, Bob and Avis Thatell and Dan Mahoney, had stuck out the storm at home, alone.

Jack Wait, 64, said, “That bothered me. We should have physically forced Mrs. Volk to evacuate. I hate to say it, but we forgot her, and she obviously didn’t want to go. It’s her only home, and she wasn’t going to leave it.”

As others complained about no water, no electricity, fire ants, no security from looters, Bob and Avis Thatell, whose house suffered only a broken window and a dented carport, and Dan Mahoney, whose lost his porch and roof, sat quietly.

Retirement wasn’t supposed to be like this. But as awful as Charley had been, they all agreed on one thing: Life was still pretty sweet.

“It was our turn to be safe,” Avis Thatell said.

Her husband nodded. “You know why we’re still here?” he asked. “It’s a matter of dumb luck.”



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