Florida takes new thrashing

After three storms, many residents were ready for Jeanne, but others were blasé.

For Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, there had been a sense of déjà vu as the weekend arrived, a sense that somehow he had been here before. "I feel like I'm Bill Murray in 'Groundhog Day,' " he told reporters, referring to the film in which one man lives the same day over and over again.

As the state emerged from yet another hurricane Sunday, its fourth in six weeks, Governor Bush's words seemed to sum up the sentiments of a population badly bruised by one of the most active storm seasons on record.

It wasn't just hurricane Jeanne's 120-mile-per-hour winds that made it so cruel, tearing holes in houses, driving the sea through oceanfront homes, and leaving more than 1 million people without power.

It was the fact that Jeanne came ashore at almost exactly the same point as hurricane Frances three weeks before, making landfall at Hutchinson Island, near Stuart, Saturday night. That meant a double whammy for residents of Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Palm Beach, and Brevard counties, where thousands already struggling from Frances endured hardship once more.

"It just doesn't stop," said Stuart's mayor, Jeff Krauskopf, who believes people are exhausted and exasperated. "It's like that song: Frances to the left of me, Ivan to the right, and Jeanne, I'm stuck in the middle with you."

Flashes from electrical transformers lit up the sky like blue lightning, and so fierce were the gusts in Stuart that two drawbridges across the inland waterway were blown open. In Jensen Beach, the historic community center collapsed, and in Melbourne, a shelter for 400 people with special needs had to be evacuated during the storm after the roof lifted.

Jeanne had already inflicted destruction on Haiti a week ago as a tropical storm, killing at least 1,500 in floods. By the time it reached Florida, Jeanne had strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane - and was bringing Florida the unwelcome distinction of being America's biggest storm punching bag 118 years.

"To have four hurricanes in one state within six weeks is almost unheard of. It happened back in Texas in 1886, but it hadn't happened since," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

On the one hand, the procession of hurricanes left residents more prepared this time around. Many still had their shutters up from Frances, or they at least knew how to put them up this time. Pantries were already stocked, and flashlights, batteries, and tarpaulins were ready.

But officials believe that hurricane fatigue also made some people blasé. As the storm approached, Bush held up a front-page newspaper report on the death and destruction wreaked on Florida's panhandle by hurricane Ivan 10 days ago, reminding residents what they were dealing with. "This is serious, serious business," he urged.

Even so, many defied evacuation orders, including 200 residents on Hutchinson Island. At least one of them, it seemed, may have regretted their decision: At the height of the storm, a car was seen careening through the guardrail of the causeway that connects the island to the mainland and dropping into the intracoastal waterway. No further news was known as of press time.

Teresa Pekins, owner of The Cabin sports bar and restaurant in Deerfield Beach, senses that Floridians are fed up.

"People are mentally battered, and the gents particularly are just exhausted from shuttering up homes and doing all the physical stuff. Everyone is emotionally drained and just thinking, 'Will this season ever end?' " she says. "I think 'disbelief' is the word of the week here."

Prior to Jeanne's landfall, the state's insured losses from the previous three hurricanes totaled $17 billion, a figure that will rise as Jeanne's toll becomes apparent. But the season has also hit people's own pockets hard after they have forked out for home repairs and stocked up on plywood and supplies. And there are those who have lost wages as shops and businesses closed.

"In the last week, we've been quiet because I think everyone has spent so much money," says Ms. Pekins. "There's nobody out there right now because they have exhausted their funds. They're cleaned out."

Scott Badesch, president of United Way of Palm Beach County, believes that as well as causing thousands to rack up unmanageable credit-card debts, the multiple storm strikes have also brought relationship tensions. He worries that the post-hurricane period will bring higher rates of domestic abuse.

Tensions may also arise as people try to decide what to do next - how they should handle repairs, for example. Or what if one member of a household wants to move out of the area, while another wants to stay?

Still, there may be a silver lining for President Bush, whose swift appearance in some of the worst-hit areas after Charley, Frances, and Ivan appears to have counted in his favor some six weeks before the election.

A survey last week by Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Conn., shows that Bush, who last month lagged six points behind Sen. John Kerry in Florida, now leads his Democratic opponent 49 percent to 41 percent. (Pollsters note, though, that it's difficult to accurately gauge Florida voters amid the state's upheaval.)

"You can't underestimate the impact of a president coming down and promising all this federal aid to people who need it," said Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards. "It's like Rudy Giuliani at ground zero on 9/11. The commander in chief is there on the ground, saying help is on the way."

By late Sunday morning, Jeanne had weakened to a Category 1 storm, but its 400-mile diameter covered most of the central part of the Florida peninsula, including Tampa and Orlando. It was expected to stay inland over Georgia and the Carolinas through Tuesday.

Rainfall totals of five to 10 inches were expected in the storm's path, and flooding could be a major concern because previous hurricanes had saturated the ground and filled canals, rivers, and lakes.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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