A line of 200 cars snakes along the street and through the gates of the Lawnwood Recreation Area in Fort Pierce on Florida's Atlantic coast, each vehicle crawling to the spot at which sweating volunteers pile bags of ice, food, and water into the trunk. As the motorists edge forward, two men wearing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tags walk the line under a chromium sun, handing out fliers that invite people to telephone for disaster assistance.
"Call any time, day or night," they urge.
So far, more than 611,000 Floridians have taken up the invitation in the wake of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne - and thousands more are expected to.
The storms' collective impact is creating the largest federal relief effort in US history, bigger than the response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California and the 9/11 terror attacks. It is providing the ultimate test - and an opportunity to make amends - for an agency that 12 years ago was widely criticized for its recovery efforts after hurricane Andrew.
Experts say the agency, often a faceless, forgotten bureaucracy until disaster strikes, has learned much since then. They credit it with being far more responsive this time around, an attentiveness perhaps enhanced by the state's political importance in a presidential election year.
It has flooded the state with more than 3,700 agents, already inspected more than 280,000 homes, and acted as the nation's unofficial banker-hardware store - distributing everything from plastic sheeting to five-figure checks.
Yet complaints persist, some of them the inevitable result of dealing with multiple tragedies and some of them the result of bureaucratic inertia. Homeowners and local officials grouse about inadequate relief supplies and slow loan processing. On the ground, FEMA is alternately perceived as a savior or villain. "Six weeks, four hurricanes, all these people needing help. I don't know how FEMA even knew where to start," says Connie Lim, who had just banked a check the agency gave her for repairs to her mobile home following hurricane Frances when Jeanne struck last weekend. "The first time, they said they would give me money to fix the house. Now they're sending someone round to work it all out again. We couldn't afford it otherwise."
Her mobile home in Country Cove, an enclave of Fort Pierce, used to have three bedrooms. Frances damaged the roof, then Jeanne ripped it off and blew out a wall, leaving just one bedroom which she shares with her husband and four children. There is no power and no water. If it rains, says Ms. Lim, we'll have to sleep in the car.
At the Colony Club trailer park, several of France Salvador's neighbors have moved into alternative housing after their dwellings were destroyed or damaged. FEMA agents carried out on-the-spot assessments after Jeanne and delivered checks to cover emergency costs. "They were very quick, very courteous," says Ms. Salvador, sitting outside her battered home and waving at a parade of police, National Guard members, and charity workers. "They delivered new trailers here at 10:30 Friday night for some of the people whose homes were condemned after Frances - 24 hours later, along comes Jeanne."
Amid the praise, however, lie enduring concerns. In some cases, local officials already exhausted by multiple disasters grumble about federal foot-dragging. Doug Anderson, administrator for St. Lucie County, vented his anger on national TV after his requests for emergency housing went unfulfilled by FEMA. "I did a lot of hollering to get to this point. I don't like to have to do that, but it's my residents that are in trouble," he says, noting that 200 trailers are now en route. "Also there had been frustration at getting financial assistance to our people."
He adds: "Now we've had a meeting: I think we're all singing from the same sheet of music."
Complaints persist of supplies running short, or even failing to turn up altogether. In Palm Beach County, patience wore thin this week over the non-appearance of a truck carrying 4,000 tarpaulins from FEMA. Even FEMA seemed unsure of its whereabouts. The agency admits there have been logistical hiccups, some of them due to Jeanne having interrupted the flow of aid after Frances. It stresses, however, that it is handling the nation's most comprehensive disaster effort, with more than 5,000 workers spread out across 15 states. Among other things, it has installed plastic sheeting on 29,000 damaged homes in the state and approved more than $355 million in assistance - half of it to cover the cost of victims moving into rented accommodation.
Through the Small Business Administration, it has given out more than $107 million in repair loans. It has also distributed more than 10 million gallons of water, 60 million pounds of ice, and 18 million meals, aided by volunteer groups such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Convoy of Hope, which runs the distribution point at Fort Pierce's Lawnwood Recreation Area.
Still, the task ahead remains enormous. Many homes and businesses remain without power. In six weeks, hurricanes have damaged more than one of every five homes in the state. Florida officials estimate insured losses at $18 billion. President Bush, whose political fortunes in Florida may have been enhanced by his multiple "comfort visits," has asked Congress for $12.1 billion in the recovery. Democrats say that's far too little. Scott Badesch, president of United Way of Palm Beach County, agrees there are long-term financial concerns but speaks admiringly of FEMA. "They have been phenomenal," he says.