Underneath tarps in Florida, glimmers of optimism

Mayor Stephen Fabian stands in front of Punta Gorda's hurricane-wrecked City Hall and gazes up at the damaged facade of the 1928 building.

After Charley, the first and most intense of the four major hurricanes this unprecedented season, came ashore here Aug. 13, it seemed certain that City Hall and the equally picturesque courthouse would have to be pulled down. "We thought they'd have to go, the damage was that bad," Mayor Fabian says.

"But we're hopeful now that we can save them," he says, outlining their plan to take off the damaged roofs and rebuild from within. "They're symbols for the city, and to save them would mean so much to everyone."

The salvaging of two small buildings from the tens of thousands destroyed by a hurricane blamed for at least 25 deaths in Florida, and for leaving many thousands homeless, might seem insignificant. Yet it is a symbol of the hope and optimism that many victims of Charley feel now that its 140 m.p.h. winds are a distant, although painful, memory.

What was at first a recovery effort has evolved into the monumental task of rebuilding - one repeated in so many Florida counties where hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan left indelible footprints.

As Fabian points out, much has still to be done. A sea of blue tarpaulins still covers damaged roofs from Punta Gorda to Pensacola, on buildings from the flimsiest of mobile homes to millionaires' waterfront mansions. The mayor himself is living in a house with the master bedroom and bathroom damaged beyond repair.

Yet despite the hardships, allegations of abuse of the federal aid system, and a shortage of reconstruction resources likely to extend the rebuilding period well into the second half of the decade, the human spirit is shining through.

"Trying to get back in business as soon as possible is all everybody here wanted to do, and these are merchants who suffered just as badly in their own homes," says Kathy Burnam, marketing director of Fishermen's Village, Punta Gorda's harborside shopping and dining complex that was extensively damaged by Charley.

Much of the center still lacks a roof, but Ms. Burnam says that reopening the shops quickly, and returning some semblance of normalcy to townsfolk, has been essential. All but one of the 40 shops and restaurants was back in business by Nov. 1.

"You can sit and cry or get on and do something about it," says Loreen Zinc, proprietor of the Beneath the Sea shop in Fishermen's Village. The retail complex reopened with plastic sheeting still covering most of a side wall and roof.

"If you'd have said it would take until November to open again, I'd have been devastated. But here we are, and we're still here," she says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) acknowledges it will be hard to meet its goal of finding proper accommodation, albeit temporary, by Thanksgiving for everyone made homeless. As of last week, more than 3,100 Floridians were still on the agency's waiting list.

But FEMA has also approved more than $2.5 billion in disaster assistance payments to 1.1 million victims throughout 67 Florida counties.

Nationally, Congress approved President Bush's request for $11.6 billion in federal aid, destined largely to help rebuild homes, businesses, roads, and other infrastructure in Florida. A separate $2.6 billion package is aimed at the agricultural sector, including the state's $9 billion citrus industry.

The allocation of some of the money, however, has caused controversy. US Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Fort Lauderdale demanded an inquiry into why FEMA had paid more than $28 million to almost 11,000 Miami-Dade claimants after Frances when the county suffered little more than a heavy thunderstorm.

"It's not a welfare program. It's to help people get back on their feet," he said after reports of residents in low-income neighborhoods breaking their car windows to secure a payout.

FEMA director Michael Brown insists the allocation system was fair. "We're going to pay every legitimate claim," he said.

Although money and aid have been flowing, hurricane victims are warned to be patient. Carol Chastang, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Small Business Administration, says the organization has approved $400 million in disaster loans nationwide. But it is struggling to sift through the more than 800,000 applications it has received, despite hiring 1,000 extra staff. "The deadlines were set for December, but this process will continue well into next year," she says.

In terms of the economy, the impact has been mixed. Florida gained 27,900 new jobs between September and October as demand grew for cleanup labor and businesses began to reopen. Department of Labor figures had showed 9,500 job losses between August and September.

Officials at Visit Florida, the state-funded tourism body, at first sought $30 million from lawmakers for an emergency national advertising campaign, though with hurricane season ending this month, it has scaled back its request to $14.5 million. "We're trying to find a way to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This is still a place to hold a meeting,' " says Dale Brill, marketing director of Visit Florida.

Mayor Fabian acknowledges there will be setbacks, some as the holidays approach. "That's when people will feel it the most, despite the progress we've made," he says.

But he can also see the storms' silver lining. In Punta Gorda, prehurricane plans for a refurbishment of the city center have been accelerated and enhanced, starting with the demolition and rebuilding of the condemned Holiday Inn. "We're heading in the right direction," he says.

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