PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Rescuers rummaged through a chaotic landscape of pulverized homes and twisted metal Saturday, racing to tally Hurricane Charley’s ‘‘significant loss of life’’ and help thousands left homeless by its vicious winds and rain. Thirteen people were confirmed dead.
As a weakened Charley churned into the Carolinas and was downgraded to a tropical storm, newly sunny skies revealed its destruction in Florida, where emergency officials pronounced it the worst to wallop the state since Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992. Twenty-six deaths were directly linked to Andrew, which caused $19.9 billion in damage.
‘‘Our worst fears have come true,’’ said Gov. Jeb Bush, who surveyed the devastation by helicopter. The Cat egory 4 storm was expected to cost Florida ‘‘at least several billion dollars,’’ said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.
State officials confirmed 13 deaths based on reports from medical examiners. The hardest-hit areas appeared to be Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County.
Wayne Sallade, the county’s director of emergency management, reported as many as 10 deaths, but no exact death toll was available. He also said hundreds of people were unaccounted for, but state officials said it was impossible to estimate the number of missing.
‘‘We believe there’s significant loss of life, Sallade said, adding later: ‘‘I would hope that it would be limited to dozens, if that.’’
He said ‘‘thousands upon thousands of people’’ lost their homes.
County officials parked two refrigerated tractor-trailers along the Peace River to serve as mobile morgues.
Extensive damage also was reported on exclusive Captiva Island, a narrow strip of sand west of Fort Myers.
Thirty-one mobile-home parks in Charlotte County sustained major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, said Bob Carpenter, a sheriff’s spokesman. He said teams were sent to each park to search for bodies and survivors.
Several medical centers were badly damaged, forcing hospital officials to evacuate patients to other facilities.
‘‘Where do we go now? What do we do?’’ said 69-yearold Barbara Seaman, standing by the shell of a demolished building in Punta Gorda’s Windmill Village Trailer Park.
The storm and its 145-mph winds knocked out power to some 2million homes and businesses as it crossed from the southwest coast at Punta Gorda to the Atlantic at Daytona Beach. Some 1.3million remained without power Saturday afternoon, emergency officials said, and downed lines slowed some rescuers.
Three cities in southwest Florida — Arcadia, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda — were without running water.
President Bush, the governor’s brother, declared Florida a federal disaster area. The president planned a visit today to survey damage, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, in a statement, offered ‘‘heartfelt sympathies.’’
The hurricane 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. An estimated 1.4 million people evacuated.
When it hit, the storm upended trucks, twisted traffic lights and lifted houses atop neighbors’ homes. Entire trailer parks were torn to splinters, and dazed residents wandered around neighborhoods, gathering miscellaneous belongings. At the Port Charlotte airport, small planes were stacked and snapped apart like toys cast off by an angry child.
‘‘I’ve been through typhoons in Guam, and I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Charles Charwat, an 84-year-old retiree in Ormond Beach, on Florida’s east coast.
Deputies were standing guard over some bodies because they were in areas not immediately accessible by ambulances.
Earlier, Charley killed four people in Cuba and one in Jamaica.
The state’s emergency response team deployed more than 1.8 million gallons of bottled water and 2.9million pounds of ice to damaged areas.
Thousands of tourists on late-summer vacations were caught in the storm’s messy aftermath. More than 1,000 people spent the night at Orlando International Airport, where debris littered two runways and winds tore the roofs off three terminals and shattered two giant glass panels in the main terminal. Scores of flights were canceled.