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Hurricane Charley: Aftermath 24 Hours Later

Aired August 14, 2004 - 14:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. You're watching a special edition of CNN LIVE SATURDAY, our continuing coverage of hurricane Charley. This is the satellite image of where the storm is now.
Yesterday, close to about this time, it struck southwest Florida with deadly force, crossed over land and then overnight headed for the Carolinas. By late this morning, the storm hit the South Carolina coast just south of Myrtle Beach. Winds of at least 75 miles per hour were reported in the area. There was some damage, but there have been no reports of injuries. Right now, thousands of people are without power.

Further south, assessing the damage of much greater magnitude. The situation is much more grim in parts of Florida where Charley struck as a category four hurricane. Hardest hit, the retirement town of Punta Gorda, just north of Fort Myers, causing death and injuries. Thousands of people are homeless.

Earlier today, Florida Governor Jeb Bush saw the devastation firsthand during a helicopter tour.


GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: The trip that we took on the Blackhawks just, you know, points out the magnitude of this. This is our worst fears have come true.


WHITFIELD: And we'll hear more from Florida's Governor Jeb Bush ahead this hour. We'll also be hearing from President Bush, who is campaigning in Sioux City, Iowa and when he makes his comments, we'll be bringing that to you live.

But first a look at some other stories now in the news.

Overseas, U.S. and Iraqi forces say they'll resume military attacks on insurgents in Najaf, but they don't say when. Peace talks with rebel forces loyal to renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr failed today. Al-Sadr's supporters from across the country have flocked to Najaf's old city.

Pentagon and senior administration sources say President Bush is set to announce a major reduction and repositioning of U.S. forces deployed around the world. One official estimates that the move will bring about 100, 000 family members and military support staff back to the U.S.

The man apparently involved in New Jersey Governor James McGreevey's decision to resign is accusing him of sexual harassment. Former security adviser Golan Cipel says the governor made repeated sexual advances on him. McGreevey has admitted a homosexual affair, and says he'll leave office in November. The state Republican Party wants him out now, to make room for a special election.

The U.S. has a new Olympic gold medal. In swimming. Michael Phelps, going after eight medals in all, won a gold in Athens today in the men's 400 individual medley. And to top that off, he set a world record with a time of 4:8:26. Fellow American Erik Vendt won the silver.

Keeping you informed, CNN, the most trusted name in news.

Right now, the exact number of dead is not known in Punta Gorda, even though the Associated Press is putting the number at 15. A retirement community there is where Hurricane Charley hit the hardest. Emergency teams are searching through a mobile home park for victims of that storm. Our John Zarrella is there and joins us -- John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fredricka. We are in Punta Gorda, and the rescue operation, search and rescue, of course, getting into full swing this afternoon. Earlier today, there were search and rescue crews not far from where I'm standing going through a condominium building. They found some people in there, but they were all safe.

I want to give you an idea of what's sort of typical of the damage that we see right around this particular area. This was an office building, used to be a bank turned into a little office building. Sales office. You can see up there into the ceiling there, all of the ceiling tiles blown out, all the furniture knocked around, all of the glass, all these panes of glass completely broken out here.

And again, this is not really atypical of what you see. It's more typical of what you see. You can look over at what was a Bell's outlet store over there. There's a repair crew, re-roofing repair crew standing there already, and you can see the buildings blown out.

But what's interesting, you can also note some of those awnings are still up, which is of course remarkable, but again, the capricious nature of hurricanes, things that should be blown down are left standing and things that should be standing are blown down.

For example, this palm tree you're looking at now, torn out by the roots through the concrete. There's another palm tree just to the left of that that's completely cut, sheared right in half, about 25, 30 feet up. And that's a palm tree. That's pretty difficult to do.

But talking with emergency management here earlier today, they were telling us that at the hospital nearby from here, they registered a wind gust of 173 miles an hour before the anemometer blew off. That hospital has been reevacuated since. It is being shut down because it has been too heavily damaged. You're looking at Highway 41, which is the main road in and out of Punta Gorda here, and a lot of heavy traffic on the road today. People trying to come home that had evacuated, and perhaps other who are sight-seers, and the sight-seers are the ones that officials don't want to see, because they are the ones who are clogging up the roads and making it more difficult for emergency management teams to get around and assess the damage.

There is, of course, a concern here that there are a number of dead. No exact figure right now. Emergency management officials say they know there are a number of dead here, but the exact count unclear at this time, because that assessment, that digging out which is what it is, Fredricka, is just getting under way. There are so many of these mobile home parks here in this retirement village that were so absolutely devastated that they have to go searching through the rubble, literally digging through it to see if people are there, and it's very difficult. There is no phone service, no electricity, no water service, which complicates any kind of a disaster recovery effort -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And John, isn't part of the problem for emergency workers to know just how many people in Punta Gorda decided to ride out the storm? Because yesterday at about this time, when I spoke with a fire department official, they talked about the number of people, mostly elderly who said they were refusing to leave. Tried to make an assessment of how many, but really couldn't do that realistically. And so now those emergency workers are returning to some of those areas today?

ZARRELLA: Right, exactly. That's exactly what they're doing. And that's what you hear in a lot of places over here on the Florida west coast in particular, where people say they're not going to leave.

We talked to folks in Zephyr Hills, an elderly retired -- a mobile home community, very similar to the ones here who were devastated, who said no, they were going to stay and ride it out. They didn't care. And that is a problem, because even though evacuations can be termed mandatory, they can't literally lift you up and force you to leave your residence. And the problem they had over here was that the storm rapidly intensified. It was a worst case scenario. They practiced for these, they drilled for these. Worst case scenario, where the storm rapidly intensifies as it nears the coastline. It took a sharp turn right into the coastline. And by then, it was too late to get -- to try and get any other people out.

But the emergency management people, almost in tears today, telling us, look, we told these people 24 hours ahead of time, they needed to get out of those mobile homes. Those were the first places that were ordered evacuated. They always are. But unfortunately, Fredricka, there are always people who just do not listen (AUDIO GAP) leave -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And isn't it something like between 90 and maybe even 100 percent of the buildings in that area have been damaged in some capacity? ZARRELLA: Oh, no question about it. I don't think that I've seen more than a handful of buildings or houses that did not sustain some damage, from light damage to moderate, to absolute, you know, structural, major structural damage, completely obliterated buildings. So there is all level of damage to just about any property that you see in and around the areas that we've been able to look at today -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, John Zarrella in Punta Gorda, ground zero for hurricane Charley, when it was a hurricane category four strength.

And now let's take a look at where Charley is after crossing through Florida and then heading north up to South Carolina by late this morning. Our Orelon Sidney is tracking the storm from our weather center, and where do we believe it is about now?

ORELON SIDNEY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, looks like the center is about 35 miles north of Wilmington, North Carolina. It's currently been downgraded, at the top of the hour, to tropical storm Harvey with winds of -- Harvey -- Charley, of 70 miles an hour, moving north- northeast at 30 miles per hour.

We are continuing to see it move northward and it's expected to continue that motion today. You can see now that it's just about north of Wilmington, heading towards Jacksonville. Jacksonville is just about in the center of the storm.

I do believe we have some live pictures now from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina that showing pretty much what you're going to expect at least for the next couple of hours, say, until about 5:00 p.m. across the North Carolina coast, and then the storm is going to move onto the north and northeast, which is of course very good news for those folks.

It does not look like your storm surge is going to be nearly as dramatic as it was down in Florida, but we are looking at four to eight feet of storm surge in some of those areas.

Remember, the tornado watch still in effect too, this is until 9:00 p.m. tonight. You can see again, the core, the strongest activity, just to the north of Wilmington. Still some very high cloud tops, some very intense thunderstorms in the center of this.

But look at this big rain shield extending northward all the way into Virginia. Even around Charlotte, you're managing to get a shower or two out of this. But this is great news. It's moving very rapidly. So that's going to minimize the amount of flooding that is possible with the storm.

Having said that, you can see still see four inches, six inches in some areas, especially some right around the center where you get the very heavy downpours. But fortunately, the jet stream is moving very fast and pushing it across the eastern seaboard, so that's going to keep the storm fast moving. And that's what we want.

We still have flood watches in effect, though, from Philadelphia southward all the way down, through the Carolina coast, and continuing even northward now, through New York City and on in towards Boston. Those areas have tropical storm warnings in effect. That means tropical storm conditions expected in those areas within 24 hours.

Take a look at some of the peak gusts we have seen so far, these unofficial. A buoy off the cost of South Carolina, 74 miles an hour; Folly Beach, 58 mile an hour winds. Once again, Charley now downgraded to a tropical storm and heading to the northeast -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, Orelon, you talk about it being downgraded, but the chances of these tornadoes, of this tornado watch still makes it still very serious in a lot of those areas along the North Carolina coast, right?

SIDNEY: That's right, because you have to not only watch out for the tornadoes -- remember, severe thunderstorms winds are 58 miles an hour or greater. So any of these thunderstorms pretty much will qualify as a severe thunderstorm. And of course, the tornadoes we're concerned with. The wind gusts in themselves can be dangerous, as well as the heavy rain. So you're not out of the woods yet.

You're not going to see the kind of damage you saw down in Florida. You're not going to see the Charley of old, but this is still not a storm that needs to be ignored.

WHITFIELD: All right. Orelon Sidney, in the weather center, thanks very much.

Well, let's go to Miami now and check in with the National Hurricane Center there, with Robbie Berg, a meteorologist there. And Robbie, we talk about it being downgraded now to a tropical storm, which means it's what, less than 74 mile per hour winds. We believe right now it's about 70 mile per hour winds precisely, but it's still a very serious threat, isn't it?

ROBBIE BERG, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: That's correct. We do have the winds at 70 miles an hour. In fact, it's just Wilmington, at the top of the hour, reported winds of 50 miles per hour, gusting to 70. So even though the storm has been downgraded to tropical storm, it's still causing some pretty strong winds in the area.

WHITFIELD: All right. Robbie, let's talk about why there are still some potential for this storm to pick up strength and maybe even make its way back to hurricane strength, category one. Why is that?

BERG: Actually, we're not forecasting it to become a hurricane again. Forecasts stay pretty much over land, and starts to dissipate as it heads up towards New England.

WHITFIELD: But as it makes its way throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, might it still brush the coastal areas, which is how it can pick up some strength?

BERG: That's true. It can move back over water, but it doesn't look like the track will be over water for very long, so it may have a difficult time regenerating into a category one hurricane.

WHITFIELD: Well, let's talk about how impressed you are about how you all were able to track these storms, with giving people in southwest Florida so much advance, even though it did take that very sudden right-hand turn, making ground zero Punta Gorda instead of Tampa as first expected.

BERG: Well, we did have hurricane warnings up from the Florida Keys all the way up to north of Tampa, well before the storm made landfall. So it really wasn't a surprise that even though it made a slight right turn, just before landfall, it really wasn't a surprise that the winds were that strong, even where they were.

WHITFIELD: All right, Robbie Berg, with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Thanks so much for joining us.

So Charley downgraded to a tropical storm, and you heard it right now from Robbie, who says there is no belief that it may gain any more strength, becoming a hurricane once again.

Well, let's check in with one of our correspondents along the coast there, in Myrtle Beach, where Charley seemed to strike late this morning. Our Dave Mattingly is there. Dave, what are you seeing?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, the emergency evacuation order that had so many people leaving the beaches has now been lifted, and according to local authorities, people are free to return to their homes and to their hotels if they want to, but the problem is when they get there, they might find the lights off and the telephones not working. Some of the counties are reporting that there are widespread tens of thousands of people without electricity at this hour, and still an uncounted number of people without telephone service, because of the lines that are down.

Charley still was packing a punch. It was a furious half hour of 70 mile an hour winds and blinding rain as it made its second landfall here in South Carolina. It left behind downed trees and flooding. A lot of rain fell in a very short period of time. But everyone here saying that they feel a little lucky after seeing what happened in Florida.

Also there was, at the time, a low tide was here in the area. So the storm surge was not what it would have been. Only five or six feet or so, not enough to really cause any problems. (AUDIO GAP). So people getting out, they're trying to go to restaurants that are open, they're trying to find the stores that are open, they're trying to get back on with their lives and do some cleaning up outside where there was a lot of damage to trees and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And David, could you get a sense from people there how nervous they might have been in the Myrtle Beach area, given that they have been through this kind of drill time and time again?

MATTINGLY: The longtime residents that I've talked to today, the people who are out on the beach a mere minute after the rain let up, they've been through much worse hurricanes in the past and they (AUDIO GAP). While it was packing a little bit of a punch as it came ashore, it was nothing that they're going to be remembering much of in the future.

WHITFIELD: All right, David Mattingly in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Well, it didn't end there in Myrtle Beach. Charley made an impression on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, and that's where we find our Bob Franken joining us on the telephone. Bob, you are due east of Wilmington, North Carolina, and right on the coast. What happened there?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's happening here is that the punch is being delivered by Charley at the minute, but as we heard, it's a significantly weakened punch.

However, there is a concern about what is the real danger of a hurricane. And that's not the initial wind, but the flooding. And the tornadoes, particularly the flooding.

We learned not too long ago that nine out of 10 people who die in hurricanes drown. They die from the flooding. And there's been significant ground saturation in this area because of hurricane Bonnie and then a couple of weeks ago hurricane Alex. So there is a concern that there might be flooding.

But it is passing over now. The officials here decided not to make this a mandatory evacuation, they made it voluntary, and most people just stuck around because this pales in comparison to some of the history here.

First of all, Wrightsville Beach is really a barrier island. And in 1954, with hurricane Hazel and '96 with Fran, those were category 4 hurricanes, and this island was completely submerged. It's not the case now. There are some power outages, and we're speaking now with Hank Merrimor (ph), who has been through a few of these. He is with the Wrightsville Beach Police Department. You decided not to do an emergency evacuation. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Based on the information that we had, the wind structure, the amount of time the storm was going to be available, and what the information we got from emergency management, we felt that an evacuation would not be necessary at this time.

FRANKEN: There are, as I mentioned, are all kinds of power outages, and that provides a special problem for the police, doesn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it does. Power outages set alarms off. Unfortunately, we can't rely on the fact that it may be a power outage, so we have to respond to every one that comes up.

FRANKEN: Now, as far as North Carolina is concerned, there are some areas that were more in danger. So the National Guard was called for some of the outer bank islands, but it looks like North Carolina, the problems that are going to be encountered here are going to pale in comparison, Fredricka, to what occurred in Florida.

WHITFIELD: All right, Bob Franken, in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Thanks very much. We're kind of hopscotching around the East Coast here in the States. Let's move further south now to Florida, where flights were grounded for quite some time in and out of Orlando International Airport. Even after losing some strength, hurricane Charley's winds were punishing enough to damage major buildings there. Our Gary Tuchman is in Orlando and joins us on the telephone -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, much of the cleanup work right now has come to a halt, because we are in the midst of a torrential rainstorm. Huge squalls, rains as heavy as we saw last night when the hurricane moved through Orlando and Daytona Beach area.

But there's a lot of cleanup here to do. We can tell you, very little of the damage has been catastrophic but it's very widespread. And we've driven a great distance today, relatively speaking, from Daytona Beach to Orlando, 60 miles, but a great distance in the sense that we've seen damage almost the entire way. Canopies on top of gas stations that have crashed down, portions of roofs that have blown off the tops of houses and businesses. Sides of houses and businesses. Insulation coming out of the home. Power lines down, trees down.

In the Orlando area, there were reports of several tornadoes that have caused damage.

There was one fatality in the Orlando area, a very sad story. A small child in a minivan was killed in a car accident when the winds started whipping up as the hurricane started arriving towards Orlando.

We can tell you right now, the main thing they're trying to do here is get all the tourists who came here to get away from the west coast, get them safely back home.

The Orlando area, a lot of people don't realize this, has more hotel rooms than any other metropolitan area of the United States -- 116,000 hotel rooms. So it was a good place to come to get away from the hurricane, but as it turned out, the hurricane came here, too. So right now, tourists heading back to the west coast. The cleanup will continue once these torrential rains stop -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: But in anticipation, Gary, of that hurricane making its way through Orlando, all of those hotels, the 116,000 hotels you talk about, did many of them close down anticipating there might be a problem if they stayed open?

TUCHMAN: Well, most of them did stay open. They gave the people the opportunity to stay there. A lot of them, though, say our employees are going home to take care of their families. You may have to stay here by yourself. So a lot of cases, there's no power and no employees, but they, in the spirit of being friendly, allowed people to hat stay there without any services. That's what we've seen at some of the hotels in this area.

WHITFIELD: All right, Gary Tuchman in Orlando, thanks very much. Right now, we want to take you to Sioux City, Iowa, and that's where President Bush is addressing supporters there. He's also making some comments about the devastation now, what's called a federal disaster area of Florida. Let's listen in.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I picked him for his advice and his sound judgment. And we're ready to go. I'm looking forward to it. Big differences, and I'm looking forward to making those differences clear to the American people.

I want to thank my friend, Congressman Steve King. I appreciate his leadership. I look forward to working with him for four more years for the good of this country.

I know the state auditor, David Vaudt, is here. I know the speaker's with us today, Christopher Rants, and I want to thank Ralph Klemme for coming, I want to thank all the state officials who are serving the state of Iowa, and those...

WHITFIELD: President Bush there, addressing supporters in Sioux City, Iowa. Just moments ago, he made some comments about Florida following hurricane Charley. Let's listen.


G. BUSH: Tomorrow, I'm going to travel down to Florida to visit with those whose lives have been hurt by hurricane Charley. Just want them to know that our federal government is responding quickly. We have got aid stations in place. FEMA federal officials are on the ground working with state and local officials. Many lives have been affected by this hurricane, and I know you'll join me in sending our prayers, to those people who look for solace and help.


WHITFIELD: President Bush making a promise there from Sioux City, Iowa, that he'll be traveling to Florida to see for himself the devastation following hurricane Charley.

More live coverage of hurricane Charley right here on CNN. We'll also have an update from Florida governor, Jeb Bush, straight ahead. Our special coverage continues.


WHITFIELD: Our special coverage now of hurricane Charley, now being downgraded to a tropical storm. In Sioux City, Iowa, you heard the president just moments ago make a promise that he'll be heading to the devastated areas in Florida as early as tomorrow morning. Our Suzanne Malveaux is traveling with the president and joins us now from Sioux City -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, that's right. President Bush is going to be traveling down there tomorrow. This follows conversations that he's had with his brother, of course, Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Also, of course, getting briefings and updates on the status of the hurricane, as well as the devastation.

Now, this is important to note. It is a mixed political move here. On the one hand, it does carry some pluses. It is important for the president to show that he's empathetic to those who are suffering at this time. Generally speaking, the American people rally around a president during a natural disaster like this one, but at the same time, of course, he cannot appear as if he's exploiting the situation.

Now, you may recall it was back in '92 when President Bush's father had some difficulty. It was widely seen that his administration slowly responded to hurricane Andrew in Florida, and that is something that he suffered from later on from the voters. But of course, as you know, Fred, Florida, a key, a critical state for the president, 27 electoral votes, the one that put him over the edge of course back in 2000. He is really going to be trying to focus for the Hispanic vote, fighting for the Hispanic vote there, a huge population increase among that particular group. But tomorrow, of course, he is going to be focusing on those people who have suffered and also getting that federal relief to them -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, and the president made a note there that FEMA is already on the ground, the Federal Emergency Management Agency already on the ground in Florida. Do we have any sense as to what his route or what his travel plans are for Florida? Obviously probably hitting the hardest hit area of Punta Gorda.

MALVEAUX: Well, you're probably right, Fred, but at this time, we don't have any details about the plan of the trip. We do know that he's going there, that it will be fairly early in the day. We don't know exactly what route he'll be taking, but it's no surprise that he will be talking to people on the ground, he'll be talking to federal, state and local officials there, but also of course, those people who have been hit the hardest.

WHITFIELD: All right, Suzanne Malveaux from Sioux City, Iowa, traveling with the president. Thanks very much.

Well, the president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been assessing hurricane Charley's impact on his state. Earlier, he held a news conference talking about the damage which he says will run into the billions. Let's listen.


J. BUSH: Once we approached Punta Gorda and saw a community destroyed in essence, I mean, particularly the mobile home parks, it is -- it's just, you know, it's hard to describe seeing entire -- an entire community totally flattened. And that's what happened in many of these mobile home parks.

And then to see, you know, the sheriff's department lost its roof. There are no police stations, there are no fire stations that are operable right now. Clearly, this was where the center of the storm hit, and as we approached it, coming up the coast from Lee County, you could see it. And it brought back very vivid memories for me personally of going through Andrew and seeing similar type of destruction.

This is a different -- in one way in that the destruction is across this communities here, too. I mean, we've not -- the inland counties also had very similar type of destruction en route, in the path of hurricane Charley. So there's a lot of work to do.

QUESTION: What about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) warning in this area?

J. BUSH: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: What about -- what about casualties?

J. BUSH: We have not gotten -- other than the fact that the operations, emergency operations director knows that there are casualties. They can't get yet, as of yet, they can't get the search and rescue teams out into every possible place to be able to quantify the number of deaths.

But if you see the devastation from up above, it's -- it would be a total shock that there weren't deaths. It is really, really sad.


J. BUSH: Yeah, there were -- the storm -- as the storm approached, this community, like the other coastal communities, called for mandatory evacuation, as was appropriate.

We were in total communication with the emergency operation center here, as well as in Lee County and Sarasota corridor (ph). So you can't plan for the unforeseen. God doesn't follow the linear directions of computer models, and these are powerful storms that don't -- don't behave in any kind of way that you can say with certainty where they're going to go.


J. BUSH: No. No, in fact, the estimate that had been referred to yesterday was from a computer model of a different track for the hurricane. Clearly, this is in the billions of dollars. I mean, there's no question about that, but that's -- that will be part of this job. What you're going to see here is the primary focus will be on humanitarian aid for the young mom and her children who -- she doesn't have formula, and she's lost her home, and for the elderly couple that we met coming out here to speak to you, that's the first priority, is to provide assistance to them.

And what you'll see I think in a very short period of time is that FEMA, the U.S. military, the National Guard will be establishing facilities so people can have a cot to sleep on, if they're homeless, to be able to get formula, to be able to get water, to be able to get food.

In addition to that, there will be efforts under way working with local community leaders to rebuild economically this beautiful part of our state, and in addition to that, we're going to make sure that there's no price gouging, that there's efforts, intense efforts to make sure that the personal reconstruction required, because I mean, if you counted the number of roofs that need to be fixed, it's just in the thousands, obviously.

That all of this is going to go on at once. And we've trained for this. This is a team effort. We've got great local officials to work with. As Mike said, while this is a day of complete devastation and a real tragedy and there's a lot of sadness in people's hearts right now, I'm absolutely convinced that within a shorter period of time than what we experienced with hurricane Andrew, people's hopes are going to be lifted.


WHITFIELD: You've been listening to Florida Governor Jeb Bush making his comments earlier.


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