Hurricane Charley Strikes Florida

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) -- Hurricane Charley struck west-central Florida with a wicked mix of wind and water Friday, ripping off roofs, tearing apart small planes and inundating the coastline before moving inland to assault Orlando and Daytona Beach.

The Friday the 13th hurricane struck the mainland at Charlotte Harbor as a Category 4 storm with winds reaching 145 mph and a wall of water up to 15 feet high.

President Bush declared a federal disaster area for the regions in Florida affected by Charley and Tropical Storm Bonnie, which hit the Panhandle on Thursday. Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, projected damage from Charley would exceed $15 billion.

``Early indications ... are that this storm has had a devastating effect as it has hit our state,'' Gov. Bush said.

There were reports of widespread damage, with more than 340,000 customers losing power. Two people died in traffic accidents during the storm.

An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated before the strongest hurricane to strike Florida since Andrew in 1992. Charley had rapidly gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico after crossing Cuba and swinging around the Florida Keys as a more moderate Category 2 storm Friday morning.

The hurricane reached landfall at 3:45 p.m. EDT, when the eye passed over the barrier islands between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, some 110 miles southeast of the Tampa Bay area that includes Tampa and St. Petersburg.

``We are ground zero for Hurricane Charley,'' said Wayne Sallade, director of emergency management in Charlotte County.

The hurricane hit the mainland 30 minutes later, with storm surge flooding of 10 to 15 feet, the National Hurricane Center said.

The surge ``is going to be the main killer,'' said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center in Miami. ``This is the nightmare scenario that we've been talking about for years. ...

``You've got roofs blowing off. It's going to be bad. Real bad.''

Nearly 1 million people live within 30 miles of the landfall.

Sallade was angry that forecasters underestimated the intensity of the storm until shortly before landfall.

``They told us for years they don't forecast hurricane intensity well and unfortunately, we know that now,'' he said. ``This magnitude storm was never predicted.''

There were reports of damage in Cape Coral, Sanibel Island and North Fort Myers. The roof, windows and doors were damaged at Cape Coral Hospital, said Gordon DeMarchi, public information officer at the Lee County emergency management center, but no injuries were reported.

About 120,000 customers lost power in Lee County -- including the emergency management center.

Some 335,000 Florida Power & Light customers lost power. Progress Energy reported more than 11,000 customers without power south of Orlando.

There was at least two reported fatalities during the storm: A crash on Interstate 75 in Sarasota County killed one person, and a wind gust caused a truck to collide with a car in Orange County, killing a young girl.

Don Paterson of Punta Gorda rode out the hurricane in his trailer. It began to rock, a flying microwave oven hit him in the head, and then the refrigerator fell on him. He spent the rest of the storm hiding behind a lawnmower, and his home was demolished.

``Happy Friday the 13th,'' he sniffed.

The eye passed directly over Punta Gorda, a city of 15,000 on Charlotte Harbor. At Charlotte Country Airport, wind tore apart small planes, and one flew down the runway as if it were taking off. The storm spun a parked pickup truck 180 degrees, blew the windows out of a sheriff's deputy's car and ripped the roof off an 80- by 100-foot building.

As Charley bore down on the region, many streets were deserted as residents were told to stay home or head to shelters, and even the Charlotte County emergency operation center had to be evacuated. The wind snapped pine trees in half, and offshore the gulf churned like water in a washing machine.

Shelters held 44,000 evacuees, including 4,000 at a Cape Coral high school, a state emergency management official said.

On Sanibel Island, about 100 people refused to leave. Authorities closed the bridge leading to the barrier island and didn't expect to open it until Saturday.

``It looks as if they're going to have to ride out the storm,'' DeMarchi said.

On Fort Myers Beach, sea water swamped the barrier island.

``We're going under,'' said Lucy Hunter, the hotel operator at the Pink Shell Beach Resort and Spa. ``When the ocean decides to meet my bay, that's a lot of water. It's already in my pool.''

Six resort employees, including Hunter's husband, hunkered down in a room in the hotel's center.

``Every now and then you hear a big whistle, but the noise isn't bad,'' Hunter said before the phone line went dead.

Diana Alexander hunkered in the bathroom of her Punta Gorda home with two sons, including 16-year-old Dagan, who had his wet suit on and planned to surf the dangerous waves.

``It's definitely a conflict between us, but it's his passion,'' Diana Alexander said.

Dagan said he was equipped with windshear goggles and a small life vest.

At 5 p.m. EDT, the center of the hurricane was near latitude 26.9 north, longitude 82.2 west, about 30 miles west-northwest of Fort Myers, and moving near 22 mph.Winds of at least 74 mph extended up to 25 miles from the center.

Charley was forecast to slice at an angle through the middle of state, striking the Orlando and Daytona Beach areas before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Rain totaling four to eight inches was expected along Charley's path, creating the risk of flash flooding.

``More than likely, it will remain a hurricane as it crosses through the central Florida area,'' hurricane center meterologist Hugh Cobb said.

Tornado watches were issued for a wide swath of southwestern and central Florida. Small tornadoes associated with the hurricane were reported in Osceola County southwest of Orlando and Highlands County northwest of Lake Okeechobee, with no damage reported.

The storm even affected the nerve center of the war in Iraq, Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, where residents evacuated and only essential personnel remained. Across the state, 10 Navy ships from Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville were dispatched to sea to avoid damage from the storm, the Navy said Friday.

Brevard County, which includes Cape Canaveral, evacuated the county's northern barrier islands and Merritt Island, home to about 150,000 people.

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper at noontime as Kennedy Space Center employees left work early. All but a skeleton crew of 200 of the nearly 13,000-person work force was sent home, or told to stay home, and the shuttle hangars and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building were sealed tight.

In Orlando, theme parks Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, planned to close in the early afternoon. Disney's Animal Kingdom didn't open at all. The only previous time that the parks closed for a hurricane was in 1999 for Floyd.

In Osceola, evacuations were urged for the southern part of the county.

``Hours ago we prayed for Tampa,'' sad Orange County chairman Rich Crotty in Orlando. ``Now we ask for their prayers.''

Amtrak canceled long-distance service between Miami and New York for Saturday, and trains coming from Los Angeles will stop in New Orleans instead of continuing on to Orlando.

About 1,000 Florida National Guard members had been activated and more were likely.

Postponements included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason NFL opener scheduled for Saturday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Charley brought occasionally heavy rain and gusts of 58 mph to the lower Florida Keys, but officials reported only minor damage.

Charley threatened to become the worst hurricane to hit Florida's west coast since Donna, a Category 4 storm in 1960 that hit the Naples-Fort Myers, killed about 50 people and caused the present-day equivalent of nearly $2 billion in damage.

Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated South Florida with 165-mph winds, causing $30 billion in damage, killing dozens and leaving thousands homeless.

On the east coast, a hurricane warning was in effect from Cocoa Beach, Fla. to Cape Lookout, N.C. A tropical storm watch was in effect from Cape Lookout to Chincoteague, Va.

A storm surge of four to seven feet was expected along the east coast in northeast Florida and Georgia.

___

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

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