STUART, FLA. — Strings of twinkling fairy lights provide a colorful contrast to the sea of tarpaulin blue that still covers many of the houses along Florida's hurricane-battered Treasure Coast.
To some residents, the bright holiday lights merely illuminate the terrible damage inflicted by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne during the worst storm season in living memory, highlighting the repairs that have to be carried out before life can return to anything resembling normal.
But the holiday decorations are shining symbols of hope to many more - even those who were made homeless or whose lives were otherwise torn apart by the double catastrophe that struck the state's Atlantic coastline this year.
Now, in a triumph of human generosity, 2,600 children in Martin County will be given a Christmas to remember. Charity volunteers who run an annual holiday food and toy giveaway in the county have been overwhelmed by donations for hurricane victims.
A two-day "shop" for more than 1,000 families in need took place in Stuart this week.
"We didn't think we'd be celebrating Christmas this year because we lost so much," says Maria Ramos, the mother of two young children whose home in Jensen Beach lost most of its roof to hurricane Frances after the eye made landfall in the early hours of Sept. 5. "These people are angels."
Ms. Ramos says it had been heartbreaking to explain to her 7-year-old daughter, Cristina, that all her toys were gone, scattered or destroyed by the 105 mile-per-hour winds and rain that whistled around the girl's bedroom.
Ramos found a new doll for Cristina and a collection of model cars for 5-year-old son Roberto, among other presents. She also picked up a bag of holiday groceries, including a turkey, on the way out. "These gifts I could not afford," she says.
Diane Tomasik is coordinator of the event, which is known as the White Doves Holiday Project and is affiliated with United Way. She says, "I've been awe-struck by people's generosity. It's heartening to see people respond when their neighbors are in trouble."
Deborah West of Stuart, picking up toys for her four children ages 7 to 14, says Christmas is an opportunity for the community to put four months of suffering behind it. "We should be celebrating," she says. "It's important we do because it's telling the kids that everything's going to be fine now, that they're going to be safe."
Projects similar to White Doves are visible in many of Florida's worst-affected counties, with the season of goodwill offering a temporary respite from the longer-term problems caused by the overactive Atlantic storm season.
The four hurricanes that hit Florida this year - Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne - caused an estimated $42 billion of insured damage and left 42,000 in the state homeless. Many are still living in damaged homes, or in the 11,000 mobile homes and trailers so far provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was swamped by 1.18 million applications for emergency aid and has approved payments of $3.17 billion to date.
Even now, more than three months after the last storm hit, almost 100 people a day are still calling the FEMA help line to register as homeless for a variety of reasons: inspectors condemning damaged homes, residents forced out by spreading mold, the money being spent on hotel accommodation drying up, or the welcome with family and friends wearing thin.
Aid groups know of victims who are living in their cars, without basic sanitation or food-preparation facilities. Shelters run by the Salvation Army and Red Cross were expecting extra business this week as they opened early because of Florida's unexpected cold snap.
"The effect of the holidays on families who are already suffering can be severe," says Liza McFadden, president of the Volunteer Florida Foundation, which runs the state's hurricane relief fund. "There's little money, and people who might be unemployed are at home together for long periods."
"Holiday stress is real," says Garret Evans, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "If you have children and celebrate Christmas this year, there will be a desire to make it special for them, to make it up to them for what they've been through this year. It's going to be hard, and a lot of these families are going to suffer. Financial woes add another layer of stress."
Professor Evans adds, "There has been time since the end of the hurricanes, an opportunity for many families to take a breather and orientate their lives again. I feel pretty good about a lot of those families. But there will still be many who continue to struggle. They feel that the world is moving on without them."
FEMA has announced that it will continue to fund crisis counseling for hurricane victims in Florida through Project Hope, set up by the state's Department of Children and Families to help people talk through their worries over financial strain or holiday stress. The organization has set up a 24-hour toll-free help line.
With the many challenges still ahead, even small steps, such an ensuring each child has a present under a Christmas tree, takes on great significance.
For Maria Ramos, it is enough to know that the holiday spirit is alive and well. "I guess Santa is going to come after all," she says.