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Wake up, try to get a life back

Mornings, when James Durham's bad legs carry him out of bed and into his yard, he sees the sun rising over the same dead, quiet neighborhood, the same caved-in roofs and scrap-piled yards.

He keeps waiting for it to get better, even a little bit, but Orange Blossom Lane is exactly as it was the day before and the day before that. A neighbor with a generator brews coffee and allows Durham to fill his cup.

As he has for the past month, the 62-year-old Durham picks through his yard for handfuls of debris and tree limbs, working just a few minutes at a time because poor circulation in his legs keeps forcing him to sit down.

"I just keep trudging day to day," Durham said. "A month after the storm, I don't have the heart to get up and do anything."

In ways large and small, some Charlotte County residents are starting to put their lives back together. They are reopening their shops and heading back to work and sending their kids to school. Power has been restored to all but heavily damaged homes.

But nearly five weeks after Hurricane Charley, thousands of others have hardly begun to see beyond the storm.

With seven of the county's 22 public schools wrecked, thousands of students must cross town to schools operating in double sessions. Crews have been able to pick up only a quarter of the 2.7-million cubic yards of debris scattered by Charley. Gigantic piles of rubble still line roads, and entire communities _ like Durham's mobile home park _ still resemble scrap heaps.

Recovery efforts have been slowed by two more hurricanes.

Charlotte County's emergency operations center was evacuated as Hurricane Frances approached. The storm flooded downtown Punta Gorda and tore off many of the 40,000 tarps distributed by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect roofs damaged by Charley.

"We barely crossed the 25 percent (cleanup) threshold before we were rudely interrupted by first (Hurricane) Frances and then Ivan," said Charlotte County emergency management director Wayne Sallade.

The threat of both Frances and Ivan suspended the Federal Emergency Management Agency's work on a 940-unit temporary housing complex, situated on 90-plus acres near the Charlotte County jail.

Sallade said Hurricane Charley destroyed or rendered uninhabitable some 14,000 homes in Charlotte County and the city of Punta Gorda, including 6,000 mobile homes. He said another 20,000 dwellings suffered minor to moderate damage.

Many who complain about the pace of the cleanup effort, he said, don't grasp the scope of the wreckage.

"All they think about is their little piece of land," Sallade said, "and if that's not being cleaned up, we're not doing anything."

Of the 8,381 Red Cross workers sent to help out after Hurricane Charley, the agency said 1,100 remain in the area. The workers continue to hand out 8,000-9,000 meals a day, many going from block to block and seeking out victims.

Hurricanes Frances and Ivan forced the Red Cross to curtail operations temporarily. "It set us back about eight days total," said Megarie Van Sickel, a Red Cross spokesperson. "They are crucial days. Every day is a crucial day."

FEMA said 200,050 victims of Charley have applied for emergency assistance, and the agency has spent $60-million to help house 29,647 individuals or families, said FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany.

Robert Murphy, a 42-year-old Charlotte Harbor landscaper, lost his home but has been working six days a week removing debris.

Murphy said his family, including his wife and six kids, are crammed into two FEMA-supplied trailers, and nerves are fraying. His children are still not back in school, each new hurricane threat having delayed their return. He said even finding a carton of milk in the store is tough.

"Everything's a headache," Murphy said. "It's a lot of stress."

In the shopping centers that line Tamiami Trail in Port Charlotte, many businesses remain boarded up. At Polet's West Indian Super Store, proprietor Edmond Benard expects to put $10,000 worth of repairs on his credit card. Benard, who had to toss out bins of rotten plantains and yams and squash, does not know when he will reopen.

"We lost all our food," said Benard, but added: "I'm not in this by myself. . . . We all have the same problems."

Down the block, Carl's Meat & Seafood, which was not damaged in the storm, was doing steady business. Proprietor Carl Schottenhamel, 52, said he was forced to throw away $7,000 worth of meat and seafood after power went down, but he knows he is among the fortunate.

"We're lucky, we're one of the few," Schottenhamel said.

Back in Punta Gorda, where he is one of the handful to remain in his damaged mobile home park, James Durham wasn't feeling lucky. Though the storm chewed up part of his roof, his home remained inhabitable, albeit without power.

Since the hurricane, Durham has been living off handouts from his church and relief agencies. He said FEMA would not give him emergency money because he spends half the year in Kentucky.

After sunset, Durham lights a candle and sits outside for a while in the dark, amid the rubble of his deserted neighborhood, then heads in to sleep about 8 or 9 p.m. The next morning, the junk towers are still there.

"After a while, it takes a toll on the spirit. You just get downhearted," Durham said.

Thank goodness for the friendly neighbor with the java.

"If I get my coffee," he said, "I can handle the rest of it."

Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or

Charlotte County


Population: 156,985

Customers still without power: 0

Homes destroyed: 14,000

Tarps distributed: 40,000

Deaths: 5

Vivien Melvin, 64, whose home east of Punta Gorda was destroyed by Hurricane Charley, puts up her mailbox Thursday because, she said, her son was expecting important mail.

Charles Hayewood, a subcontractor for the city of Punta Gorda's cleanup program, calls the debris he sees daily "unbelievable." Hayewood's own home was severely damaged, and in a shelter until his insurance claim is resolved. "It just takes a little time," he said.

Shawn Leiser receives supplies from the Red Cross near Punta Gorda on Thursday. "It's so depressing," he said of the mess his home became.