Hurricane Kills at Least 15 in Florida

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) -- Hurricane Charley's devastating tear across Florida flattened oceanfront homes, killed at least 15 people and left thousands more homeless before the weakened storm pushed north and struck the Carolinas on Saturday.

It was the strongest storm to strike Florida in a dozen years, knocking out electrical service to an estimated 2 million homes and businesses as it crossed from the southwest coast at Punta Gorda to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach.

``I could hear the nails coming out of the roof. The walls were shaking violently, back and forth, back and forth. It was just the most amazing and terrifying thing,'' said Anne Correia, who spent two hours in a closet in her Punta Gorda apartment.

Charley's generally northward course took it across open ocean, missing the westward curving shore of Georgia, before it made landfall for a second time on South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region and moved into North Carolina.

By the time it made landfall for a second time on South Carolina's Grand Strand resort region, the area was nearly empty after a mandatory evacuation of some of the area's 180,000 tourists and residents.

The storm still packed wind of 75 mph, considerably weaker than its sustained speed of 145 mph Friday but still enough to classify it as a hurricane.

Ten deaths had been confirmed in Charlotte County, said Wayne Sallade, the county's director of emergency management, but no exact death toll was available.

``Not hundreds. I would hope that it would be limited to dozens, if that,'' Sallade said. Deputies were standing guard over bodies because they were in areas not immediately accessible by ambulances.

There were five confirmed storm-related deaths elsewhere in the state. Earlier, Charley killed three people in Cuba and one in Jamaica. Tornados spun off by Tropical Storm Bonnie killed three people in North Carolina earlier in the week.

President Bush said he would visit Florida on Sunday to see the damage. He already had declared storm-struck counties a major disaster area.

His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, completed a helicopter tour of the region, saying, ``our worst fears have come true.''

Hundreds of people were unaccounted for in Florida's Charlotte County, which includes Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, and thousands were homeless, Sallade said. He compared the devastation with 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which was directly blamed for the deaths of 26 people, most in South Florida. Extensive damage was also reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.

``It's Andrew all over again,'' he said. ``We believe there's significant loss of life.''

There are 31 mobile home parks in the county that suffered major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, said Bob Carpenter, a Charlotte County Sheriff's Office spokesman. He said teams were sent to each park to search for bodies and survivors, but getting into them was difficult.

``We just couldn't get the vehicles in _ there is so much debris,'' he said.

Rescuing people who may be trapped is the top priority, said state emergency management director Craig Fugate.

``If we're going to change the outcome for anybody that's been injured or trapped, we know time is of the essence,'' he said.

Dan Strong, 51, returned to his home in Biehls Mobile Home Park in Punta Gorda and found it had been destroyed.

``Everything is gone,'' Strong said as he dug through the rubble trying to salvage photographs, clothes and other belongings.

The storm arrived in North Carolina with maximum sustained wind of 75 mph, and gusts to more than 80, down considerably from the 145 mph wind that ravaged Florida's west coast on Friday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ron Humble.

A hurricane warning was in effect from the South Santee River in South Carolina to the Virginia-North Carolina state line. A tropical storm warning extended north to Sandy Hook, N.J., and a tropical storm watch was in effect to the Merrimack River in Massachusetts.

National Guard troops were on duty in North Carolina, where a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for vulnerable coastal areas hit less than two weeks ago by Hurricane Alex.

More tornadoes were possible, warned Renee Hoffman, spokeswoman for North Carolina's Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

Three hospitals in Charlotte County sustained significant damage, Sallade said, and officials at Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda said they were evacuating all patients Saturday.

More than 200 ambulances _ many from southeast Florida _ were organized to transfer patients to other hospitals in Orlando, Sarasota, Tampa and Lee County.

``We really have to get the patients out of here. This place just isn't safe,'' said Peggy Greene, chief nursing officer. She said windows were blown out, part of the roof was blown off, and there was no power or phone service.

Among those seeking treatment was Marty Rietveld, showered with broken glass when the sliding glass door at his home was smashed by a neighbor's roof that blew off. Rietveld broke his leg, and his future son-in-law suffered a punctured leg artery.

``We are moving,'' said Rietveld's daughter, Stephanie Rioux. ``We are going out of state.''

An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated in anticipation of the hurricane, which reached landfall at 3:45 p.m. EDT, when the eye passed over barrier islands off Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, some 110 miles southeast of the Tampa Bay area.

At a nursing center in Port Charlotte, Charley broke windows and ripped off portions of the roof, but none of the more than 100 residents or staff was injured, administrator Joyce Cuffe said.

``The doors were being sucked open,'' Cuffe said. ``A lot of us were holding the doors, trying to keep them shut, using ropes, anything we could to hold the doors shut. There was such a vacuum, our ears and head were hurting.''

The fourth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, Danielle, formed Friday but posed no immediate concern to land. The fifth may form as early as Saturday and threaten islands in the southeastern Caribbean Sea.

Associated Press writers Mark Long in Fort Myers, Ken Thomas in Key West, Mitch Stacy and Brendan Farrington in Tampa, Vickie Chachere in Sarasota, Mike Branom and Mike Schneider in Orlando and Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report