PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) – Mike Rankin was helping patch a hole in a neighbor’s hurricane-damaged roof a week ago when the soft, wet wood gave way and he fell through the ceiling, hurting his leg.

“They think I have a hairline fracture,” said Rankin, 57, an electrical contractor being treated at the Charlotte Regional Medical Center emergency room. “I’ve got a leg that looks like it belongs to an elephant.”

Hurricane Charley’s aftermath is proving to be as hazardous as the storm itself.

About half the 25 deaths attributed to the 145-mph hurricane came after Charley left Florida on Aug. 13. And emergency room visits in this Gulf Coast county have soared, with patients suffering injuries and illnesses connected to the cleanup.

Along the edge of downtown, a temporary ER set up in a cluster of tents in a parking lot had treated 1,006 patients in the first 10 days after the storm.

“Some of the stuff we’re seeing is people stepping on nails, tripping over debris, chainsaw accidents,” said Steve Huffman, a member of the disaster team that set up the ER.

Medical workers are also seeing people injured in car wrecks at intersections where traffic lights are out; heat stroke sufferers; victims of heart attacks, chest pain and breathing difficulties; people with diarrhea and vomiting after drinking bad tap water; patients with stress-related mental problems; and people with a whole host of bumps, bruises, cuts and strains.

Post-storm deaths around the state have been caused by electrocution, heart problems, carbon monoxide poisoning, auto accidents and heat stroke. One man died in a fall from a tree. Another was killed when a tree fell on him during the cleanup.

Charlotte Regional reopened a week after the storm hit and was immediately busy. One particular day, a heart attack victim who had come from Ohio to clean up around his winter home was being released, while other patients where being treated for a wrenched shoulder, a punctured finger and an injured foot.

Charley destroyed an estimated 10,000 homes and severely damaged 16,000 others. Around Charlotte County, the streets are strewn with broken glass, downed power lines, branches and other obstacles. The stench of sewage hangs over the community.

Officials are trying to warn residents about the hazards. But with communication disrupted by power outages and people focused on fixing their homes, not everyone is getting the message. Some, for example, are not heeding warnings to boil their water or treat it with bleach.

“Either they’re not getting the message or they just feel like the water’s safe because it’s running with higher pressure. And it’s not. It’s not even close,” said Josh Putter, Charlotte Regional’s executive director. “Even though we’ve got water running, the sewer system has yet to be functional.”

So when people wash their hands with contaminated water, they are not doing themselves any favors.

People using generators in their homes are often unaware that the equipment can back-feed electricity onto power lines that utility workers and neighbors think are dead. “We’ve had some near misses,” said Grover Whidden, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light.

Damaged roofs are becoming water-logged with Florida’s daily thunderstorms and ceilings are falling. And the rainwater leaking into homes now could cause health problems months from now when mold and mildew grow in the carpets and air conditioning ducts.

Teams of mental health specialists have been handling 25 cases a day at one downtown location. Some people lost their medicines in the storm; others cannot handle the tension and the stress.

“You take the heat and the lack of sleep and it compounds the stress,” said Jason Halbert, who works with one of the teams.

Many of those cleaning up their yards are toiling under a pitiless sun in 95-degree heat. And with the electricity out in much of Charlotte County, there are not many places to escape the heat.

“People just aren’t used to this kind of exertion. And the some of the equipment they’re trying to use – chainsaws are a big one – or even falling through a roof,” Putter said.

Fred Strike, wearing a tattered straw hat, T-shirt and shorts, carried a large garbage bag to his curb, where tree limbs, rain-soaked carpet and other debris were already piled up. The windows of his home were blown in, and the roof leaked.

“I’ve really been hot. I’m having breathing problems,” said Fred Strike, 66, who has had triple heart bypass surgery and is diabetic. “But we have to do it because nobody else can help us with it.”

He and his wife, Sara, 56, have spent every day since the storm working on their home. “Seven days, just like this,” she said. “No sleep, and work more. Eat less and work more. Sometimes I have chest pains and I have to stop for a few minutes.”


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