Florida families get down to serious cleanup

Monday, September 20, 2004

By Bill Kaczor ~ The Associated Press

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- In storm-battered Florida, the Rev. Russell Levenson of Christ Episcopal Church gave his congregation "permission slips" Sunday to grieve for their lost possessions. Then he urged them to look for hope.

"Maybe you lost the trees, but not the house. Maybe you lost the house, but not the stuff in it," he said. "Maybe you lost everything, but you're still here."

And they were, worshipping in a large meeting room because their church bell had fallen through the roof.

Across the state, hundreds of relief workers fanned out Sunday to help still-numb families. Motorists waited in lines miles long to buy gas and get free food, ice and water. People of all ages sifted through the rubble of demolished and damaged homes and businesses, trying to salvage clothes, photos, anything of their life before Hurricane Ivan.

President Bush visited the Pensacola area and Alabama on Sunday -- his third such visit for Florida -- and flew by helicopter over parts hit hardest when Ivan howled ashore Thursday with 130 mph wind. The hurricane spawned deadly tornadoes and a huge storm surge that gutted homes and businesses, washed out roads and bridges and knocked out power.

"Hang in there," the president told residents as he walked along a street where Ivan obliterated dozens of homes, leaving lawns littered with broken lamps, clothes dryers, windows, chairs and microwaves.

Lynn Woodruff, whose home was heavily damaged and whose family restaurant across the street was demolished, spoke briefly with Bush. "Out of something bad, at least he made you feel good," she said.

Ivan's path across the South and Northeast left at least 52 people dead, 16 of them in Florida. Earlier, it was blamed for 70 deaths in the Caribbean.

The president has declared disaster areas in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, freeing up federal money for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans and other programs.

Escambia County, Fla., bore the brunt of Ivan's storm surge and wind, which damaged bridges that cross its bays and connect the mainland to the barrier island of Santa Rosa Island. It left virtually all the county's 300,000 residents without power, water and sewer service.

Many residents who waited in long lines for food, ice and water seemed to take the hardships in stride.

Lowell Weaner, 58, waited 1 1/2 hours in a line of cars that snaked for blocks into a distribution site. He lost some roof shingles and a tree fell on his house.

"We're all in the same boat," he said. "It's frustrating but it's not just you, it's everybody."

American flags flew in the yards of homes in hard-hit neighborhoods near the Pensacola Naval Air Station, home to the Navy's precision flying team. At one subdivision, a spray-painted sign warned strangers to stay out: "If you don't live here, you have no business here."

Home-to-home search and rescue efforts concluded in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, where crews had combed through residential structures ranging from washed-out single-family homes to high-rise condominiums.

From a Coast Guard boat in the Little Sabine inlet, the shores of Pensacola Beach bore little resemblance to the vacation destination it once was. Dozens of homes and condos were demolished. The roof of the Holiday Inn was smashed in, while two giant holes were torn in the side of the Dunes hotel. A swath of once-pristine white sand had swept ashore along the south side of the inlet, piled almost two stories high next to some condominiums.

"One of our police officers who was over in Iraq says this is worse than that because when they drop bombs they are more directed and you have a little pile of rubble," said Pensacola City Manager Tom Bonfield. "This is just so many miles of it, you just can't believe it."

Still, some progress toward recovery was being made.

Gulf Power Co. had restored power to 30 percent of its customers in the Panhandle as of Sunday, leaving nearly 250,000 homes and businesses still without power, most in Escambia County.

While most residents remained without power, they got a small reprieve: temperatures reached only the mid-80s during the day and were forecast to cool off at night to the 60s, with no rain in the immediate future.

And, for a state where no part has been untouched by a hurricane this season, some good news emerged Sunday.

Tropical Storm Jeanne turned into the open sea, making it likely to spare the southeastern United States. Flooding from the storm already has been devastating in the Caribbean, however: Jeanne killed at least 50 people in Haiti, seven in neighboring Dominican Republic and two in Puerto Rico.

Another hurricane, Karl, gained strength but was far out in the Atlantic on a course that will keep it there, a threat only to shipping.

The hurricane season ends Nov. 30.

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