AUGUSTA (AP) – It was not the welcome Steve and Barbara Learned expected after they left their longtime home in Augusta two months ago to enjoy retirement in balmy Punta Gorda, Fla.

Hurricane Charley, packing 145-mph winds and torrential rains, battered southwestern Florida on Friday, destroying the Learneds’ new three-bedroom home. The storm left at least 16 dead and hundreds unaccounted for.

The Learneds were unable to evacuate because they had only an hour’s notice that Charley was headed their way. They huddled in their home, waiting for the storm to pass through.

“We were in an interior closet and we could hear the shingles being lifted off the roof and then we heard the plywood being lifted off,” Barbara Learned said.

The wind pulled cement tiles off rooftops and sent them sailing through the neighborhood like bullets; a palm tree fell and smashed Steve Learned’s car.

At one point, the hurricane’s eye passed over the city and brought the brightest sunshine imaginable, the couple said. Then the back end of the storm came through with much less force, Barbara Learned said.

The couple remained in the closet for the duration of the storm, emerging later that evening to find their neighborhood obliterated but no one seriously hurt.

Their house was another story.

“It’s not livable. The roof is pretty much gone and there’s a lot of water damage inside,” Barbara Learned said.

The couple had never experienced weather to compare with Charley. Maine’s ice storm of 1998, by comparison, was a walk in the park.

The Learneds spent Friday night in their remaining car and then left for a hotel 40 miles north in Sarasota, where they nabbed the last room available for weeks. They’ll remain there until they find a more permanent place to stay.

The couple filed for federal disaster aid, which would likely pay for any damage not covered by their homeowners’ insurance.

Despite the trauma and damage, Charley hasn’t prompted the Learneds to abandon retirement plans and rush home to Maine.

“We’re staying. We’re going to rebuild,” Barbara Learned said.



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