Florida hotels pick up pieces

PUNTA GORDA, FLA. -- When John Zaccari, director of operations at the Holiday Inn Punta Gorda, saw strangers running by with televisions from his hotel minutes after Hurricane Charley nearly destroyed the property, he barely blinked.

"There was so much destruction, it was devastating," Zaccari said. He said he was walking around in a daze, casually noticing the door of his office--used as a makeshift command post as the storm was nearing Florida--lying on the ground, the hurricane map with thumbtacks still plastered to it.

"My God, thank God we got them out of the hotel; they would have lost their lives," Zaccari recalled thinking about his guests and employees. The hotel had evacuated about 450 staff and guests earlier that afternoon, Aug. 13, and only a television news crew stayed.

Zaccari watched the destruction of the hotel on television from his home in Sarasota, Fla., about 45 minutes north, and went into shock, he said. The news crew filming from the hotel showed that the roof had just blown off the hotel, and mattresses were hanging out the windows.

He immediately jumped in his car and drove to the hotel.

"I had to drive down there. It's like your home away from home," Zaccari said.

He found the area pitch black, and all the light poles in the parking lot were knocked down. The roofs on each of the three buildings in the complex were torn off. A Coca-Cola vending machine from inside the hotel was sitting out in the parking lot.

Fifty of the Holiday Inn Punta Gorda's 70 employees lost their homes in the hurricane, Zaccari said.

But they are not alone. Thousands of Floridians lost their homes, while many residential and commercial properties in the path of the storm had roofs torn off, fallen trees and other property damage. Preliminary estimates placed insured residential and commercial property losses at $11 billion--the second costliest storm in the United States, next to the $19 billion in property damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Damage to hotels is difficult to assess. Even on the Southwest Florida coast where the hurricane first hit, damage ranges varied.

"There are areas where everything is totally destroyed, then right next to them, they are fine," said Tom Waits, president and c.e.o. of the Florida Hotel & Motel Assn.

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