Florida's long race to recover

The state scrambles to avoid costly mistakes made in the wake of '92 hurricane Andrew.

As the main east-west artery across south Florida, Alligator Alley might be expected to be thick with traffic leaving hurricane Charley's disaster zone as displaced residents seek shelter - and even just a shower - elsewhere across the state.

But the lane leading into the storm-hit area has been busier than the one heading out as convoy after convoy delivers everything from bottled water to bulldozers to help communities back to their feet in the wake of the worst hurricane in 12 years.

The early resoluteness is a sign that authorities want - and may be able to pull off - a quicker cleanup after Charley than after hurricane Andrew in 1992. Several forces are converging to drive a possible speedier response: the sheer magnitude of the need, lessons learned since Andrew, and the political imperative.

Indeed, officials at both the state and federal level are keenly aware of the criticism that dogged President George H. W. Bush's administration following the 1992 cleanup. Back then, there was anger at the perceived slow reaction from Washington. That's one reason President Bush was in a helicopter touring Florida within 48 hours of Charley's headstrong departure, telling one resident in Punta Gorda: "It's going to get cleared up a lot faster than you think."

Yet there is pressure on his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to perform adeptly as well. Governors know that their fortunes often rise or fall on their management of natural disasters or potential disasters: Think Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the blizzard of '78 (favorable) and California Gov. Jerry Brown in the medfly crisis of 1981 (highly criticized).

"We will work our way across the state to reach every individual that needs help and work to get immediate relief to them," said Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this week.

The challenge, however, is enormous. Florida Power and Light had restored supplies to around 1 million people by early Monday - 200,000 more than at this stage in the hurricane Andrew cleanup 12 years ago - but a million more were still without electricity. Some of those in the most badly affected areas of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, north of Fort Myers, may have to wait another two weeks. The official disaster zone has now been expanded to cover 25 counties to hasten the flow of federal funds.

As many as 50,000 displaced

Exact figures for the number of people left homeless and houses destroyed are not yet known, though the state has requested housing for 10,000 families. In addition, 228 shelters have been opened up to accommodate up to 50,000 displaced people. The death toll from the storms whose winds hit 145 m.p.h. stood at 17 early Monday.

By comparison, hurricane Andrew's 160 m.p.h. fury killed 26 people, destroyed 63,000 homes, and left around 180,000 homeless. It cost the insurance industry $20.3 billion, while Charley's price tag is expected to be between $11 and $15 billion.

Hundreds of people are still said to be missing, though emergency officials caution that some may be individuals who haven't been able to call loved ones. "It's very tricky in all the chaos and confusion to determine whether people are really missing or not," says Steve Williams of the South Florida Regional Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

Mr. Williams is part of a 35-strong team dispatched to Punta Gorda to establish a field hospital - and is one example of how local people are responding quickly. They've set up in the parking lot of the Charlotte Regional Medical Center, which has no power or water and lost part of its roof. The squad of doctors, nurses, and paramedics headed to Florida's Gulf coast from Miami-Dade County in the southeast, which bore the brunt of hurricane Andrew but was untouched by Charley. "A lot of people came across to help us back then, so now we are returning the favor," says Williams.

That same Good Samaritan spirit is apparent in many areas outside the crisis zone. Supermarkets set up collection points at which shoppers may donate canned food, and volunteers from churches and community groups sent truckloads of water, tarpaulins, and toiletries. Even the hurricane's four-legged victims were not forgotten: Helpers at the Humane Society of Broward County drove 120 miles to rescue 35 cats and 18 stray dogs found amid the ruins of people's homes.

Stores in the hurricane area, for their part, are battling to keep up with demand for cleanup materials: Home Depot alone sent 440,000 sheets of plywood, 30,000 generators, 1.2 million batteries, and 150 truckloads of flashlights to its Gulf coast stores.

The American Red Cross is handing out 20,000 meals a day in Punta Gorda, representing the agency's largest disaster response since Sept. 11, 2001. Overall, aid agencies have provided more than 300,000 meals.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson says 402 trucks from other states had arrived with 2 million gallons of drinking water. More than 4,000 National Guard troops are helping to distribute supplies, erect tents, and patrol the streets for looters - 1,000 more personnel than were assigned to the hurricane Andrew cleanup.

The prospect of unscrupulous people cashing in on others' misfortune is something that concerns state authorities. They have already received more than 700 complaints of price gouging, citing one example of a couple presented with a bill for $11,000 for the removal of one tree. "We're not playing games," says Mr. Bronson. "If somebody's out there price gouging, they are going to be charged."

Let's do it better this time

Clearly, FEMA will face one of the biggest tests in the cleanup. Its response was so slow after Andrew that some people on Capitol Hill wanted to abolish the agency. Many experts think it has improved markedly since then.

"Federal and state authorities are definitely better prepared now than they were for hurricane Andrew," says Carol Lehtola, an expert in disaster preparedness at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "FEMA has a totally different role now than it did back then. They are more proactive, and they have more authority for quickly getting resources to where they are most needed."

Experts say the insurance industry is better prepared now, too. At least 11 smaller insurance companies went bankrupt after Andrew, leaving some 930,000 policyholders without coverage options. This time around, experts predict fewer insurers will go under, and Floridians' premiums shouldn't skyrocket.

Still, only time will tell if the current recovery effort - both public and private - will outperform the one of 12 years ago. As the days pass, Charley's victims - hot, tired, and homeless - will pass judgment, including, perhaps, at the ballot box in November. For now, Mr. Bush claims he will do things differently from his father. "That was then," he said in Punta Gorda this week. "This is now."

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