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Sunshine State Emerges From Charley’s Cloud

Mon August 30, 2004 - Southeast Edition
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Hurricane Charley lifted Jay Clark’s 3-ton cattle feeder and dumped it a half mile away. It flattened greenhouses belonging to brothers Wayne and Colon Lambert. A packing house for strawberries and watermelon was reduced to a metal skeleton.

The hurricane’s northeastern route along U.S. 17 tore through an agricultural swath of the Sunshine State you won’t likely see on the Travel Channel. It’s a world removed from the Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach, the manicured golf communities along the Gulf Coast and the manufactured fantasies of Orlando’s theme parks.

The route is located in Florida’s heartland –– the state’s equivalent to the Midwest. Instead of being the nation’s breadbasket, it’s the country’s orange juice jug. More than a third of the orange juice produced in Florida comes from fruit in the counties through which Hurricane Charley passed.

“This is the heart of Florida agriculture. It bore the brunt of the storm,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, whose district once encompassed the hurricane-hit counties. U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris now represents the area.

The storm, which hit Aug. 13, traveled U.S. 17 from Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast, the hardest hit area, to Fort Meade about 65 miles north, before tearing through Polk County to Orlando and Daytona Beach.

The hurricane uprooted hundreds of orange trees along the highway, turned a gas station into dust, tossed power lines and poles across the highway, blew the roofs off countless homes and fruit packinghouses and left Wauchula’s Main Street in a bombed-out state of crumbled brick buildings and windowless shops.

Dale Loder, 56, who owns a car restoration business on Main Street, was in his shop when the hurricane lifted the roof off part of the building and scattered its aluminum pieces across the block. He heard the winds slicing the front facade off of a two-story brick-and-limestone building next door, leaving two exposed second-floor rooms where only a Coke machine and a desk remained.

He moved to Wauchula 14 years ago for its affordability. But he’s happy the hurricane may give him an opportunity to leave. “I hate this town,” Loder said. “There is nothing to do here.”

Farming is the most important thing to do here. It is the top employer in an area where pickup trucks rule the road and where in some parts, such as DeSoto County, cattle outnumber humans by a 2-to-1 margin.

But farming has stopped for now as citrus growers cope with a lost crop for next season. Hurricane Charley blew fruit off trees and many of the remaining fruit is too bruised for harvesting. The hurricane also damaged a fertilizer plant and blew away a tractor dealership.

Clark, whose cattle feeder got tossed, owns 1,000 head of cattle and 400 acres of citrus. He believes most of his fruit has been lost.

“Right now we’re in a state of shock,” Clark said. “Nobody in the industry has seen anything like this.”

The swath along U.S. 17 is one of the poorer regions in the state and because of its limited opportunities, it has trouble keeping its children once they’re grown. There has been an effort to diversify the economy beyond agriculture in recent years and county officials have supported the construction of a Wal-Mart distribution center in southern DeSoto County.

The U.S. 17 area is a mixture of old citrus families and more recent migrant farmworkers from Mexico. Many, such as Alejandra Anaya, 45, have settled permanently in the area. Anaya moved from Mexico to Fort Meade two years ago to be with her husband who is in construction. She said she plans to stay despite the hurricane damage.

“What can we do? We have to stay here,” Anaya said as she waited in a line to pick up canned food, toilet paper and water outside the old Bowling Green train depot.

Denise and Randy Ross chose to move from Michigan to the tiny town of Fort Ogden 16 years ago because they liked the tranquility of living by citrus fields and the comfort of knowing all of their neighbors.

Hurricane Charley tore the roof off of their house, leaving only slabs of wood planks across the top. It smashed out the back window of their sports utility vehicle and tore their once pristine arbor of orange and lime trees into an impenetrable jungle of misplaced limbs and fruit on the ground. But they plan to rebuild in the same spot, said Denise Ross, a pharmacy technician.

“I love it here,” she said, waving her hand to indicate the quietness that allowed crickets to be heard chirping from the citrus grove by her house. “This is rush hour.”

Cleaning Up After the Storm

Mike Mackiewicz, owner of Sanford-based Branch Management Tree Care knows the damage first hand. His company of nine employees is working around the clock, doing the work of what realistically would take more than 50 crew members.

“We’re doing nothing but removing trees –– tree emergency calls, trees that fell on houses,” Mackiewicz said in a recent phone conversation, his cell phone ringing constantly in the background. “We could have 50 people working seven days a week, 24 hours a day and never catch up.”

He noted that the damage is much more extensive than people fathomed and it may take a year to clean up all the green waste and other debris, including having it burned or ground.

“Right now we’re just lifting [trees] off the houses, cutting them up and moving them to the roadways. We’re not shifting the debris or hauling any debris off the site. The county is moving all the debris away from the roadway.” Mackiewicz said. “I’m an I.S.A. certified arborist and we like to preserve the trees. … but the majority are busted up so bad, everybody right now is just looking at ground level. They’re looking at 6 feet and down or 8 feet and down, nobody’s looking at the tops to see how busted they are.”

He said people are still reacting to their initial shock by getting the bulk of the trees off the ground, grass, cars and houses.

“And now,” Mackiewicz said, “damage is starting to fall out of the trees and trees are starting to fall over.”

Prior to Hurricane Charley, when Branch Management used a crane to remove trees from properties, the company leased a crane with an operator. But the intensity of Charley forced Mackiewicz to purchase a 17-ton Terex 3470 rear-mounted crane from Hydraulic Machinery in Tampa.

“I’ve always contemplated buying [a crane], but this was the catalyst storm. The morning after, I drove around and just saw the sheer immensity of the damage and knew I needed to purchase a crane,” he explained. “A friend of mine had purchased a crane and was quite happy with their service department.”

For Mackiewicz and his crews buying the crane came down to a need: more time.

“There’s just no time,” he lamented. “To remove a tree safely that’s pinned on a house, it’s just a no brainer. The only way to safely remove it is with a crane. And it’s the fastest, safest, most efficient way of doing tree work on any kind of removal. You always want to favor using a crane when possible.”

As a result of Charley, Branch Management, which has been serving the greater Orlando area since 1983, is getting an average of 150 to 200 calls a day. This is up from typically 30 calls a day for estimates.

“Of those estimates, we may be happy if we get 5 to 10 percent of them,” said Mackiewicz. “You’re not going to get everything you go look at, but now, if you’re the first one of the job, you pretty much got it if it’s reasonable.”

If you have to take a tree down the old fashioned way –– roping it down and rigging it with ropes and back into itself –– it can take upwards of four hours, time that Branch Management doesn’t have right now.

“Typically, a healthy tree that has to be taken apart, for say, a swimming pool or for whatever reason and it’s in the backyard … it could take four hours,” explained Mackiewicz, “but with a crane it can take 45 minutes. Five, six, seven cuts and you’re done.”

The majority of the trees Branch Management is removing are laurel oaks. With a life span of about 70 years, laurels are much weaker than the live oaks, many of which survived the storm.

“In the grand scheme of things the live oaks will live 500 to 600 years and are very, very strong,” said Mackiewicz. “A lot of the live oaks are still standing and may be busted up a bit. The majority of the them took it really good, the majority of the laurel oaks did not.”

A Question of Price

The oak tree in Ilyse Kusnetz’s back yard caused one headache when it crashed into her house during Hurricane Charley. Now the tree is sprouting a second worry: price gouging.

Kusnetz, 38, said that she didn’t have enough time to get several estimates from companies willing to cut it down and haul it away, so she’s paying an Ohio-based crew $2,400.

“That might be reasonable and that might not, but there’s no way of knowing,” she said. The price could drop after a wait, Kusnetz acknowledges, yet a delay could bring more damage to her house.

In Charley’s aftermath, price gouging is a growing concern in Florida. Homeowners want damage fixed quickly. They want ice, gas and hotel rooms. Unscrupulous business owners feed off that impatience and offer their goods and services for a fee far beyond reasonable.

“I think it’s horrific that people would do that,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “I don’t sense that is the defining element of this storm, though.”

Mackiewicz added, “There’s a lot of people from out of state who are absolutely price gouging. A five-man crew with a crane can be charging $1,000 an hour.”

The state has received 1,854 gouging complaints from consumers in a week, the Attorney General’s office said. Those include purchases of hotel rooms, gas, lumber, hardware, generators, ice and water.

Attorney General Charlie Crist has already filed complaints against hotels in West Palm Beach and Lakeland, accusing them of jacking up room rates as the storm approached. State law says anyone who price gouges in a disaster area can be fined $1,000 for each offense up to $25,000.

The state defines gouging as charging “grossly more” than what was charged for the product, on average, in the weeks before a disaster, unless the increase is the result of higher costs being imposed on the retailer.

For example, if wholesale gasoline prices suddenly spike, gas station owners aren’t guilty of gouging if they raise their prices an amount that reflects their additional cost.

Construction industry leaders and lawmakers said consumers need to understand the difference, since many think any price increase during a disaster is an example of gouging.

“On the one hand, you don’t want people to take advantage. We heard a horrible story about an elderly woman charged $8,000 to have a tree removed from the front of her home,” said U.S. Rep Tom Feeney. “But you don’t want to provide a disincentive for the electrical companies, the cleanup companies and dozens of other services that are in real demand.”

Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, said prices of plywood could go up, for example, because supplies could be stretched. In that event, merchants have two choices: raise prices, or ration how much can be bought.

That, he said, puts businesses in a tight spot.

“I know I’ve had the experience before of dealers telling me, ’Look, I’m just going to say that I don’t have it. If I raise the price, people will say that I’m gouging, and if I don’t raise the price, I’m going to lose money.’”

Working Together

With a freezer full of food about to spoil, there was only one thing for Nestor Tsimpedes to do after Hurricane Charley made a shambles of his Punta Gorda restaurant –– feed people for free.

When the freezer was emptied of ham, roast beef and turkey, he sent his employees to buy hot dogs.

“What was I going to do? I’m ruined,” Tsimpedes said, his eyes becoming moist with tears as he recounted memories of the Greek-American kitchen where he toiled nearly every day for the past 10 years.

Tsimpedes is not alone in his generosity. Hundreds of local residents and some from across the nation have turned out to provide a vast array of free aid since Charley ravaged the area.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that 77,000 households had registered for disaster relief in Florida as of Aug. 20. The Red Cross is preparing 125,000 meals a day and says an estimated 2,200 families have been housed in shelters.

But it is the unofficial aid stations that have become a lifeline for many people.

Hurricane victims need travel only a few blocks on some major thoroughfares before seeing hand-lettered signs offering free water, ice, sandwiches, diapers, blankets and toiletries. Many Good Samaritans just pull up at the first big intersection they see to distribute their aid.

“We are amazed by what we see here,” said Bruce Bagge, a retired investment executive who loaded up a pickup truck with ice and water to take back to his neighbors.

For several days, Audrey Brooks of Fort Myers loaded up her minivan with bags of bread, peanut butter and other supplies and drove 25 miles to the damaged area. On Aug. 19, she brought 25 gallons of bleach so people could disinfect their homes, and it was all snapped up in about 30 minutes.

“I am just doing what I can,” Brooks said while her 6-year-old son Timothy napped in her car. “It’s sad. It hit in along an area where people don’t have a lot anyway.”

With some restaurants and grocery stores still closed, the spontaneous showing of compassion by ordinary people –– and some businesses –– has helped many people get back on their feet.

“People are at their human best when people are in need,” said Susan Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. “This is a big, big disaster, and we have big, big Good Samaritans.”

Many of the Samaritans are residents of the neighboring communities of Sarasota and Fort Myers who escaped the storm relatively unscathed. Others work for companies who have given them time off to help storm victims.

Dale Creech, a construction superintendent for Minton Construction in Palm Beach, has been delivering ice. When he arrived the day after the storm hit, he drove a truck of ice around until he saw someone in need. Since then, Creech and his company have sent out several truckloads of ice.

“We’d expect somebody to do it for us if it was the other way around,” he said.

A Red Cross distribution center just north of one of the hardest hit areas in Punta Gorda has become a gathering spot for individual donors and volunteers. On Aug. 19, it resembled a bustling outdoor market of foods and goods –– with a flood of storm victims eager to accept the aid.

Eunice Wiley and her granddaughter, Rori Evans, 6, collected fresh fruit and granola bars, all the little girl feels like eating in the oppressive heat and humidity.

“It’s a relief, it puts you at ease,” said Wiley. “We are just thrilled with the amount of help.”

Down the street, Randy and Sandra White took a break from clearing debris at the trailer park where they had kept a winter home. They welcomed the shade of a tent, a bowl of vegetable soup and a bottle of cold water.

“It sure is nice to come out and get something to eat,” Sandra White said. “We didn’t have any way to fix things or go buy food.”

Harbor Nissan was badly damaged in the storm, but by the end of the week the dealership was offering free tire repairs for those who got flats from all the nails, broken glass and bent metal littering the street. Shop foreman Joe Jurisko said the dealership is losing thousands of dollars a day, but thought it was important to help.

“That will come around back to us,” he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)

AP Photo: A Bobcat skid steer moves scrap metal damaged by Hurricane Charley to a conveyer belt (L) at this scrap metal facility in Orlando, FL. Cleanup up of the areas hit by Charley is expected to take a year.