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Storm-ravaged businesses do what they can

By Mitch Stacy
The Associated Press

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Nancy Cuffaro was back in business, serving up New York-style pizza and apple turnovers in a restaurant still dark and sweltering almost two weeks after Hurricane Charley knocked out the electricity.

Like many shops just north of Charlotte Harbor, Cuffaro’s place, Romano’s Italian Bakery, Deli and Pizza, was doing what it could with heavy damage and no power. With gas ovens and generator-powered refrigerators humming, customers ate outside in the 90-degree heat while workers began replacing a demolished plate-glass window.

“We opened this business 10 months ago,” said the 47-year-old Cuffaro, who rode out the storm with partner Salvatore Mannino in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. “Now we have to start all over from scratch. Thank God we’re here and we’re OK.”

Scores of businesses were damaged by the Aug. 13 hurricane, which caused an estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage to homes, businesses and personal possessions, more than any other hurricane in Florida since Andrew in 1992. Specific property damage estimates and economic losses for businesses weren’t immediately available Wednesday.

Most traffic lights along U.S. 41 remain out, but merchants along the road are slowly dragging ruined carpet and other debris to the curb and getting back to work.

Many, like Romano’s — which Cuffaro estimated will lose a “couple hundred thousand dollars” from property damage, lost sales and spoiled food — have put hand-lettered signs out by the road to let people know they are open.

The thump, thump, thumping of gas-powered generators is a common sound.

A long line of cars formed this week at the McDonald’s drive-thru under the shell of its smashed-up sign. The facade of a furniture store looked bombed-out, but merchandise was for sale under a spacious tent in the parking lot. A gas station by the harbor was up and running — absent the large roof that used to cover the pumps.

Some businesses were so badly damaged they will be closed for months.

Harbor Nissan was selling and fixing cars even though its showroom was all but wiped away by the storm. Only the steel frame and some hanging insulation remained.

General manager Angelico Tomacruz said the business is fixing tires and doing other minor repairs for free. He has also lent cars to the sheriff’s office and a truck to the Salvation Army to deliver meals. He has sold a few, too, though he says the storm damaged or destroyed 75 percent of his vehicle stock.

“We want to get back to being normal and let the community know we’re here to support them,” said the 36-year-old Tomacruz, who’s been living in a trailer. “They’re going to remember who helped them out.”

Hogbody’s Bar & Grill near the harbor began serving grilled hamburgers, hot dogs and pork sandwiches in the parking lot of the storm-damaged restaurant within days after Charley roared through. A sandwich and a side is $2, but lots of free meals have been distributed to recovery workers and others.

“If somebody walks up and they don’t have any money, they don’t need it,” said owner George Gillespie, 44. “We’ll take care of you. We’re just trying to do our part.”