A hurricane's lessons in Florida

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

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.

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

Florida itself has some of the nation's strongest hurricane-preparedness procedures, and that fleet-footedness came into full effect as the storm's path shifted from a predicted landfall at Tampa, as a Category 3 storm, to landfall at Port Charlotte and Sanibel Island as a Category 4.

The hurricane's path was, in part, an example of the limits of forecasting, a surprise that left plenty of residents angry and confused. But the buildup to Charley also showed a growing willingness among coastal dwellers to take personal responsibility for keeping track of killer storms.

"This storm reinforced that our ability to predict where they're going is still pretty good, but our ability to predict their intensity is less good," says Dr. Susan Cutter, the director of the Hazards Research Lab at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "People really do need to pay attention and heed warnings, and, in this case, I think they largely did."

Even as hurricane Charley turned into the Gulf of Mexico after clobbering Cuba and Jamaica, anxiety soared in southwest Florida, where many residents had begun to relax, believing the storm would touch down miles away in Tampa.

"It wasn't supposed to hit us, and three hours later, the eye went right through us," says Tracy Collin, talking by telephone from the busy counter at AJ Petroleum on Arcadia's stretch of Highway 70 on Saturday. Half of Arcadia's 6,000 residents filed out of town in an orderly manner. Ms. Collin stayed, holed up in a closet, as the storm lashed across the citrus fields and strip malls. "Downright scary," she admits.

If fallen walls could talk

Hurricane Charley sent a storm surge of over seven feet into Florida's low-lying coast. Thousands of homes were wrecked, and even residents seeking shelter inland were caught up in the storm.

In Punta Gorda, police holed up in the evidence room, as the storm ripped the roof off the building. Authorities are now looking for large empty buildings to house the thousands of families rendered homeless by the storm.

Coastal development is unstoppable, many say, but new mandatory building codes have had a deep impact, helping to reduce structural damage and keep much of the storm's havoc superficial.

Yet the change here goes deeper than shutters, foundations, and beams: Experts say the area's culture is changing, too. These days, living in the hurricanes' playground is a calculated risk. And even inland residents have become avid forecasters, scanning weather radar screens like so many stock-exchange scrolls.

With myriad websites and online storm trackers, it's gotten far easier for amatures to follow hurricanes. The website hurricanealley.net had a record 280,000 hits before Charley touched down, and founder Tom Berg says that has a lot to do with people making their own assessments of storm strength.

In southwest Florida - a haven for retirees and the home of a diverse, often poor, population - weather-watching is even more critical. Amid homes ranging from palatial to shoddy, fear grows as the quality of construction declines - especially when winds rush through at nearly 150 m.p.h., strong enough to send SUVs and mobile homes tumbling down the street.

The lessons of clean-up

For all of the weekend's devastation, there are, as always, lessons in the rubble. Past natural disasters have shown that many communities do revive in the end - and as disaster relief pours in, the influx of cash and attention can ultimately rejuvenate struggling towns.

In fact, researchers at the University of South Carolina have found that, to some extent, coastal residents may benefit once the horror of devastation wears off - much like the way horrific prairie fires can, in the long run, restore the landscape.

Still, those lessons seem far away, almost unimaginable, to those struggling this week to rebuild.

And even as their Herculean efforts begin and debris, shovel by shovel, is carried away, coastal residents are watching the sky. Hurricane Earl, still fomenting in the Atlantic, is expected to whirl into the Gulf of Mexico by the middle of the week - just the latest in what's turning out to be a long summer of oceanic torment. "He's going to be a keeper," predicts Mr. Berg.

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