PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Bill Nylander survived Hurricane Charley, but the storm still managed to hurt him days after it destroyed part of his hometown and caused billions of dollars in damage across Florida.
Nylander burned his leg while trying to repair his roof in the heat of the sun. The 68-year-old retiree needed treatment Tuesday at a medical center set up in four tents outside a hospital closed for repairs.
Until the electricity hums again and the debris is cleared, health officials are worried that there could be more deaths and injuries in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley than during the storm itself. At least 21 deaths had been linked to the storm.Slideshow: Charley’s aftermath
“We’re seeing lacerations, injuries post-hurricane,” said critical care nurse Karen Mulvaney. “A lot of people are coming here now because people are now returning to their homes.”
In addition to injuries, residents are being sickened by eating spoiled food and contaminated water. They are skipping their prescription drugs and, with no air conditioning and with window screens blown away, exposing themselves to mosquitoes carrying diseases such as West Nile virus.
On Wednesday, Sanibel Island was reopened to permanent residents for the first time since it was evacuated before the hurricane. Roads had been cleared of storm debris but there was no power or drinkable water on the barrier island of about 6,000 residents.
Sanibel Mayor Marty Harrity said most of the damage to the island’s homes was cosmetic, involving missing shingles and shutters and loss of shrubbery and other landscaping.
“People are smiling — they’re getting the opportunity to come back and see their homes,” Harrity said by phone.
Insurers are likely to pay an estimated $7.4 billion in claims for damage to homes, businesses and personal possession such as cars, Insurance Information Institute chief economist Bob Hartwig said Wednesday. That estimate doesn’t included uninsured property and flood damage or huge agricultural losses.
If the estimate holds, Charley would be the second-most expensive U.S. hurricane after 1992’s Andrew, which caused $15.5 billion in insured losses, he said. State officials had estimated earlier that damage to insured homes alone could be as much as $11 billion.
While Sanibel residents and others inspected their damage, Georgia Power utility workers J.R. Kidwell and Trent Carbbe, of Carrolltown, Ga., started their day at 5 a.m. straightening out downed utility poles and stringing new wire.
“The heat is the hardest part of the job,” Kidwell said. “Sometimes, you can’t get a truck to right of ways, so you have to climb a pole with your hands and legs.”
About 493,000 people remained without power, state officials said, holding to predictions it could take weeks to fully restore electricity. Nearly 100,000 still lacked local phone service.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that Charley’s 145 mph wind could have destroyed even more homes if not for the stronger building codes enacted after Hurricane Andrew 12 years ago over the objection of some contractors, who said they were too costly. He described seeing new buildings that were relatively undamaged next to older buildings that were destroyed.
The official death toll rose from 19 to 20 Tuesday when an 86-year-old man who had evacuated his home fell and died in a motel, state officials said. The state count did not immediately include the carbon monoxide death, confirmed Wednesday by Lee County officials, of a man running a gasoline-powered generator in a shed attached to his home since losing power in the storm.
Charley also killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.
For thousands of Floridians, Tuesday was a day when services cut off by Charley’s rampage Friday were being gradually — and sporadically — restored. Federal disaster assistance money began flowing, state officials cracked down on price gouging and postal workers handed out mail.
Free food, ice and water were distributed across the region.
“I haven’t had a hot meal in days, but I’m doing all right,” said 82-year-old Norma Chapman, who drove to a half-demolished strip mall in Punta Gorda to pick up six bags of ice Tuesday.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.