PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) – Step by small step, life is returning to normal in this town hardest hit by Hurricane Charley.

Things as simple as making a cell phone call or having a cold beer in a neighborhood pub are helping residents cope with the massive cleanup and repair efforts. That can be an important development in the recovery process.

“I’ve heard people that have lost everything and they celebrate simple things like they have a dial tone or their cell phone chirped for the first time,” said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management director. “Businesses are coming back on line. It’s something as simple as eating downtown instead of driving out of the county.”

There are also the bigger steps: The downtown hospital reopened Friday and Gov. Jeb Bush promised to bring in portable classrooms so all schools could open a week from Monday.

“You have a senior class that has had four years here, and for them to graduate at another site is not acceptable,” said Charlotte High School Principal Barney Duffy, standing in front of a pile of bricks and shattered wooden beams that toppled from the three-story school.

It will probably be another two years before students walk Charlotte High’s halls again, but 80 portable classrooms will be brought in for its 2,300 students. Football practice begins this weekend.

“It’s going to start the healing process,” Duffy said. The students “need to be with their friends, commiserate, cry a little and hopefully laugh a little.”

The recovery effort has moved at lightning speed compared with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Insurance claims are moving faster, search and recovery efforts wrapped up in three days and supplies are flowing into the community and being distributed with greater efficiency.

Part of it can be credited to improved technology – satellite communication and portable cell phone towers – and to better preparation and planning among emergency workers. State officials said more schools were damaged by Charley than by Andrew, yet schools were expected to reopen nearly three weeks earlier than they did in 1992.

Seven of Charlotte County’s schools were destroyed, but Bush said classrooms, text books and buses are being brought in from around the state so every student will be in a classroom Aug. 30 – just seven days after the originally scheduled first day.

He and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown promised the county would have money to rebuild its schools.

“We’ll cut you the check, we’ll get these buildings rebuilt and get the schools back open for you,” Brown said.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry toured the emergency operations center in Punta Gorda, telling one worker, “This is very inspirational.”

About a mile from Charlotte High, a crowd of doctors, nurses and residents cheered as Charlotte Regional Medical Center reopened. As hospital and state officials addressed the crowd, two patients were wheeled into the emergency room.

“The morale of the community will be stimulated,” said cardiologist Dr. Paul Popper. “People will feel safer knowing we’re here.”

A preliminary damage tally released Thursday by the American Red Cross found that Charley destroyed more than 10,000 homes and left 16,000 others uninhabitable without major repairs.

More than 300,000 customers in the 25 counties affected still had no power Friday, state officials said. In Charlotte County, residents were not expected to have their electricity fully restored for another 10 days. The death toll was at 23, including people who have died during the recovery efforts.

AP-ES-08-20-04 1741EDT

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