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Sunday, September 26, 2004

New York Times > Another Hurricane Roars Across Mid-Florida

September 27, 2004
AREFOOT BAY, Fla., Sept. 26 - Hurricane Jeanne delivered walls of stinging rain and winds of up to 120 miles an hour as it spun across Florida on Sunday, making landfall almost exactly where Hurricane Frances did over Labor Day weekend and waging the third assault in six weeks on the state's sodden midsection.
The storm caused at least five deaths, including a man who was electrocuted touching a downed power line in Miami. A man and woman died, officials said, when their sport utility vehicle plunged into a canal beside the Sawgrass Expressway, near Deerfield Beach.
A man drowned in Palm Bay when his pickup truck was submerged and a boy, 15, died after he was pinned by a falling tree in Clay County, southwest of Jacksonville, The Associated Press said.
The storm was also responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in Haiti, where it caused grievous flooding before moving over the Bahamas and into Florida.
While widespread, the storm's damage in Florida did not appear as catastrophic as that after Hurricane Charley, which devastated parts of southwest and central Florida on Aug. 13, and Hurricane Ivan, which brutalized the Pensacola region on Sept. 17.
Flooding was perhaps the biggest problem, after hours of heavy rainfall in areas already saturated by past storms. Roofs and siding, possibly weakened by the last hurricane, flew off or sprang leaks, and piles of old storm debris went flying.
The storm, then classified as a Category 3 hurricane, made landfall on Hutchinson Island, just south of Fort Pierce, shortly before midnight, when the sky had an eerie blue cast caused by transformer explosions. It moved northwesterly across the state, lashing inland agricultural regions that had already suffered mightily and weakening to a tropical storm as it turned north toward Georgia. By Sunday evening, its maximum sustained winds had dropped to 55 m.p.h.
With its arrival, Florida became the first state to experience four hurricanes in a season since Texas in 1886, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Eqecat, a California company specializing in risk evaluation, estimated the damage to insured property was $6 billion to $14 billion. The previous three storms, which were blamed for at least 70 deaths, caused tens of billions more dollars in damage.
"This is unprecedented, there's been nothing like it," Gov. Jeb Bush said as he visited the emergency operations center in St. Lucie County, adding that the relief effort for the combined storms was the largest in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's history. "Certainly it's the largest series of natural disasters we've faced."
More than 1.5 million customers in 38 counties lacked electricity after Hurricane Jeanne came through, state officials said, though some power failures were from earlier storms. Shelters were housing about 61,000 residents, only a fraction of the two million who were urged to evacuate coastal areas.
Many said that after relocating weeks earlier, they could not bear the stress of moving again to a shelter or hotel and leaving their property and pets unattended.
Julie Monti, 86, said she stayed at home in Micco, about 30 miles north of Fort Pierce, because a shelter would not have welcomed her sickly dog. While she huddled in a closet overnight, the hurricane peeled the roof and walls off the second floor of her house, leaving a soaked tangle of furniture and a lonely looking fireplace.
"I tried to get a state trooper on the highway to help today," she said. "He told me, 'Lady, you're lucky you're alive, there's people trapped in houses.' "
Mrs. Monti said she had owned the house for years but had just moved full time in July, after selling her other home, in Stanhope, N.J. She does not have insurance, she said. She was trying to cover blown-out windows with tarp, unsteady on a slippery foot stool as the rain began to fall again. Her yard was a sea of broken lawn statues: gnomes, flamingos, dolphins, goddesses.
She said she had tried to call F.E.M.A. four times after Hurricane Frances, which damaged a building in back of her house, but could not get through.
"Look at my furniture up there," she said, her voice quavering as she surveyed the wreckage with brimming eyes. "I want to go back to Jersey."
Just up Route 1 in Barefoot Bay, a community of 5,000 manufactured homes that Hurricane Jeanne hit especially hard, Charles Sweeney, 71, was trying to determine which damage was new and which was old.
"Half of this was Frances," he said, pointing to a roofless, screenless porch, "and the rest, all the way through the back, was Jeanne."
In the Tampa Bay area, which had not anticipated being in the storm's path (until late Saturday, most forecasts had predicted it would move straight up the state's east coast or track only slightly to the west), many residents were unprepared as the wind arrived on Sunday afternoon.
"We don't even have groceries this time," said Laura Keane of St. Petersburg. "We did so much the other two or three times. This time we didn't do anything. It was like, huh, oh well."
In Polk County, where the storm's eye passed over the most populous areas, Cindy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the county emergency management office, said several trailer parks were in terrible shape.
"It looks like tarp city out there," Ms. Rodriguez said. "All these tarps that were on the roofs damaged by Charley are now floating down the streets."
The small town of Mulberry lost use of its wastewater treatment plant during the storm, she said, which caused sewage to pour onto streets. She said that before Hurricane Jeanne arrived, there had been a good deal of denial in Polk County, which she said was the only county in the direct path of three hurricanes.
"We think, 'It can't possibly hit here again,' '' Ms. Rodriguez said.
While almost every business in Central Florida was closed Sunday, a few defiantly reopened.
Beverly Robinson, who owns Beverly's Ranch House in Cocoa, opened early Sunday using two generators to power three freezers, a grill, lights and an ice machine. "I couldn't afford to be closed," she said. "I'm going broke. I lost $6,000 when I was closed for a week because of the last hurricane."
Tom Himes of Merritt Island, who works for a window and door contractor, said financial hardship forced him to risk his life and stay put during the storm. "We couldn't afford to leave town,'' he said. "My wife and I lost too much time off work during the last hurricane."
As the storm churned north, many people admitted to feeling numb in its wake, and the wake of three others..
"Every single weekend I think, 'Oh my God, I've got to sit through another one of these,' '' said Eden Healt, 33, of Tampa. "You get mentally tired and emotionally and physically, just tired."
Reporting for this article was contributed byTerry Aguayo from Miami, Dennis Blank from Cocoa, Sara Kennedy from Tampa and Lynn Waddell from St. Petersburg.

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