Hurricane Charley battered Central Florida tonight, packing 105 mph winds that tore off roofs, knocked down trees and left tens of thousands of residents without power.
There were widespread reports of trees falling on homes and storm-related fires, as well as unconfirmed reports of tornadoes in Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.
Orlando Utilities Commission customers had lost power -- one-third of their service area -- and as of 10 p.m., 477,000 Progress Energy customers were out in the 35 counties it serves in Florida.
The hurricane made landfall at Charlotte Harbor about 3:45 p.m. with a wicked combination of water and 145 mph winds. The storm tracked up the Interstate 4 corridor, hitting Orlando around 9 p.m. At 11 p.m. the storm's center was 10 miles from the coast in Daytona Beach. Winds had died down to 85 mph with 105 mph gusts.
"This is the nightmare scenario that we've been talking about for years,'' hurricane center director Max Mayfield said of storm surges that ranged from 10 to 15 feet.
And then it carried its violence rapidly inland.
"Happy Friday the 13th,'' said Don Paterson of Punta Gorda, who tried to ride out the storm at his mobile home but got beaned by a flying microwave oven as his home was demolished. His refrigerator fell on him, and he spent the rest of the storm sheltering behind a lawnmower.
At Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda, up to 50 people came in with storm injuries. The hospital was so badly damaged that those injured and existing patients were being transferred to other hospitals on Coast Guard helicopters.
"We can't keep patients here," chief executive officer Josh Putter said. "Every roof is damaged, lots of water damage, half our windows are blown out. ...
"There's a lot of crush injuries. Things have fallen on people, crushed their legs, crushed their pelvis -- a lot of bleeding, a lot of major and minor lacerations."
Just up the Peace River, in Arcadia, one wall collapsed at a civic center serving as a shelter for 1,200 people. Only one person was hurt, and her injuries were minor.
The wall "started peeling back,'' said Alida Dejongh. "It lifted and you could just see more and more light. You could hear this popping and zipping noise like a giant Ziploc bag.''
As of 9:30 p.m., there was one storm-related death reported in Central Florida. A young girl was killed in a traffic accident on the Beeline Expressway when a tractor-trailer lost control in high winds and rolled on top the car she was in. Statewide, there were two other deaths -- one from a crash on Interstate 75 in Sarasota County and another. A man who stepped outside his house to smoke a cigarette died when a banyon tree fell on him in Fort Myers, authorities said.
At the Wellesley Inn in Kissimmee, the wind blew air conditioners off their mountings and sent Ana Rodriguez, 58, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, into the hallway to pray.
"Pray to the Lord and sing. Pray to the Lord and sing," she chanted in Spanish as she held hands with other vacationers stranded at the hotel. She said the words gave her peace.
The power went out around 8:35 p.m. and candles set off fire alarms. The walls of the hotel shook, but Rodriguez says she trusts God and that her life is in his hands. In 1988, she lived through another hurricane. "I prayed to the Lord, and we were OK."
At 9 p.m., the center of hurricane was located near latitude 28.4 north, longitude 81.4 west, or about 15 miles south-southwest of downtown Orlando. Charley was moving near 25 mph.
Orlando International Airport reported sustained winds of 61 mph with gusts to 83 mph. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 25 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 85 miles.
President Bush declared Florida a major disaster area, making federal money available to Charlotte, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties. In Lee County alone, a property appraiser estimated damage at $2.3 billion.