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A hurricane's lessons in Florida

Residents begin the massive cleanup of one of the costliest US natural disasters ever.

By Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Lynn HarveyCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2004


From prostrate Punta Gorda along the Gulf coast to shaken Daytona Beach on the Atlantic, millions of Florida residents are struggling to regain their equilibrium after one of the most costly natural disasters in modern US history.

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In parts of Florida, cleanup after hurricane Charley now looks as if it could rival that of hurricane Andrew 12 years ago - itself the United States' most expensive natural disaster, at $28 billion. More than two days after Charley hit, hundreds of thousands remained without water and power, and scores of other were staying in emergency shelters.

Search-and-rescue teams from as far away as Colorado continued to scour for missing people, while residents began to tally up the damage to everything from lost homes to lost citrus groves. But beneath the immediate physical and emotional toll of cleaning up, deeper questions were swirling about the state's response:

Prediction. Though hurricane forecasting has improved dramatically, Charley's sudden turn to the right on Friday, sparing Tampa but catching towns to the South by surprise, shows, at the least, the limits of modern hurricane prediction. It is also driving home an awareness among coastal dwellers - many newcomers who were experiencing their first major hurricane - the importance of taking personal responsibility for tracking storms.

Construction. While the growth of costal communities may be unstoppable, the hurricane will provoke new questions about the density of development in hurricane- and flood-prone areas. More pointedly, Charley has once again exposed the vulnerability of mobile-home parks and other less-substantial structures to major storm damage.

"People of means build solid structures and people without means live in frail ones, and hurricanes have a way of finding the people without means," says Louis Perez, a historian at the University of North Carolina.

Evacuation. Thousands of residents on the Florida Keys and in major coastal cities carried out orderly evacuations as the storm approached.

But other areas, including in Pinellas County around Tampa Bay, which had days to prepare, reported confusion over residents' knowledge of various hurricane evacuation zones. Local authorities agree that communication capabilities - including hot lines, many of which were jammed - will have to be improved.

A landscape of devastation

Charley left at least 16 Floridians dead and 15,000 homeless; early estimates put property damage between $5 and $11 billion. It prompted the largest mobilization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since the hours and days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. President Bush toured the damaged areas by helicopter Sunday. Already, 25 counties have been declared disaster areas.

Some of the impacts may take months to measure. Florida's $9.1 billion citrus industry, for instance, was devastated: About 35 percent of the state's citrus groves are located in counties that saw their trees torn up and their barns and equipment destroyed. The oranges that were to become the harvest of 2005 were blown off the trees that remained.

The most startling devastation, though, was in the coastal towns of Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, nestled in a section of the Gulf Coast that's home to many of the state's mobile-home parks and retirees.

The county has 31 trailer parks of up to 1,000 units, many along the streams that run toward Charlotte Harbor. Now, three of its hospitals are useless, and several airport hangars have lost their roofs. Two emergency shelters were damaged, and Charlotte County's emergency operations center was shut down.

Charley sent Punta Gorda's 15,000 residents reeling two centuries back in time: There are no power lines here, no telephones or indoor plumbing. Cars have been rendered useless by damage or debris. Traffic lights are out, and water - which could now be contaminated - must be boiled over outdoor fires or the grills that have landed in neighbors' backyards.

Preparation and prediction