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A storm of help follows Charley

In wind-wracked Arcadia, Fla., volunteers and strangers dole out supplies. A church fills with food, but the challenge is daunting.

Relying on a combination of grit and gratitude, Floridians are fighting to reclaim their lives in the aftermath of hurricane Charley.

They are doing it with the help of an array of local, state, and federal officials who continue to arrive by the hundreds to assist in the relief effort. The Red Cross and other volunteer groups are also fanning out across the stricken area. In addition, scores of ordinary Florida residents are acting on their own, opening their homes, volunteering, or donating much-needed supplies. "It is totally amazing, the outpouring of compassion. It is overwhelming," says Ken Sayers, standing in front of his partially destroyed mobile home just off Route 17 on the road from Punta Gorda to Arcadia.

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"We've had total strangers stop and give us water and ice," says his wife, Kathy. One woman opened a suitcase to give her a pair of shorts.

As they speak, a white van pulls up and the occupant hands each of them a freshly grilled hamburger with potato chips.

Hurricane Charley has claimed 19 lives, made thousands homeless, and initially left more than a million without power. But rather than giving in to misery in the face of summer heat and occasional torrential downpours, most hurricane survivors seem to be pressing on.

Perseverance, practicality

Some have nailed blue plastic tarps where their roofs used to be. Many have purchased gas generators to keep their refrigerators running. And some retreat a few times a day to an air conditioned automobile for a moment of chilled splendor.

For many others, the picture is grim. Elderly residents are struggling in the extreme heat to perform even minor tasks. While others - who have lost their homes and jobs - are trying to cope with the prospect of making it through another day and confronting an uncertain future.

But the vast majority encountered during a reporting trip through the region are adopting a more optimistic view. Many residents and relief workers say they are struck by the heightened sense of community that has emerged since the storm ripped through this section of western and central Florida on Friday.

"They just dig deep and give as much as they can," says Lou Brooks, an ambulance driver who came to Arcadia with a contingent from the Hendry County Fire Department.

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The Rev. Greg Fry of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church says many storm victims are still numb from their frightening encounter with Charley. "I don't think the community has let the full reality set in," he says. "That will come in a week or two."

The hurricane ripped a portion of the roof off the historic Episcopal church, forcing Mr. Fry's congregation to use the adjacent original church last Sunday. The older church was built in 1893 and survived the storm with no significant damage. Shortly after the service ended, volunteers delivered 20 SUV loads of food, filling the original church hall well beyond anyone's expectation. St. Edmund's has been distributing it to neighbors ever since.

Downtown's uncertain future

Despite the strong community spirit, many local business owners are growing concerned that the hurricane may have dealt a fatal blow to Arcadia's downtown historic district. In recent years it had developed into a mecca for antique shoppers.

Most of downtown Arcadia was built in the early 1900s. For many years the downtown area existed as a kind of afterthought. But six years ago a group of merchants and a local contractor, Tim Paul, began renovations to restore much of Arcadia's original charm. The effort paid off. Arcadia was becoming a popular tourist destination.

Then, last Friday, Charley arrived - the state's most destructive storm since Andrew slammed South Florida in 1992.

The storm blew down a portion of a brick building, one of the anchor structures on the main street. The roof on a second important building, the Arcadia Tea Room Restaurant, leaked badly. Flying debris shattered windows, exposing expensive antiques to wind-driven rain. Other roofs gave way to wind and water. "Some people think this will kill Arcadia," says Pat Carbonneau, who owns Appleberries Country Store and Gift Shoppe with her husband, Harry.

Her shop's glass windows remained unbroken during the violent storm, but somehow water found its way into the shop through the roof or walls. "I want to reopen, but are we going to be able to do it here?" Mrs. Carbonneau asks. "I don't know."

"It is devastating," Mr. Paul says. "We lost 50 percent of the businesses. So all their employees are without jobs." He adds, "Ninety percent weren't insured."

As he talks, an antique shop owner carries a grandfather clock down the street from a storm-damaged shop to more secure storage. Nearby, an insurance adjuster aims his camera at a storefront to record the damage.

Paul compares the future of downtown Arcadia with that of Homestead, Fla., after hurricane Andrew. After Andrew, the Air Force closed its base at Homestead - a major blow to the city's economy. But the city has since rebounded, he says.

It will be harder for Arcadia to rebound after Charley, Paul says. "This is a rural area. Homestead had more to work with," he says. "All we have is orange trees, the hospital, and the prison."

Chuck Craven, who runs Wheeler's Café, says the owners of the downtown buildings hold the key to Arcadia's future. Will they make the necessary repairs to permit the businesses to continue, he asks. "I hope there is no way they can just write it off and let it sit," he says.

Mr. Craven says there is no middle ground on the issue. "It will either come back strong or it will die," he says.