Residents count blessings after Earl

BY PJ HELLER | WESTERN FLORIDA | September 4, 1998


WESTERN FLORIDA (September 4, 1998) -- Residents in the Florida Panhandle area breathed a collective sigh of

relief Thursday (Sept. 3) after Hurricane Earl passed through their area

without causing the kind of devastation they had known from previous storms.

Nevertheless, Earl did leave its mark as it came ashore with 80 mph winds

at Panama City, FL, in the predawn hours Thursday. The storm flooded

waterfront homes, washed out coastal roads, knocked down trees, cut power

to thousands and spawned tornadoes throughout the South. Three people, two

in Florida and one in South Carolina, were killed and at least six others

were injured, one critically.

Overall, though, officials said it could have been much worse.

"We were fortunate," said Charles Moeller, a regional facilitator with

Church World Service. "We got off easy."

"It was nothing like Opal or Erin," added Harvey Jenkins of the Presbytery

of Florida, referring to the two hurricanes which slammed the Gulf Coast in

1995, causing extensive damage and which claimed 38 lives.

As Florida Panhandle residents began the cleanup process, many people were

already thinking about the Labor Day holiday and hoping visitors would

return to the popular Gulf Coast tourist areas for the three-day weekend.

"It's beautiful," Jenkins said of the weather Friday in Panama City. "It's

cooled off and the sky has cleared. Things are looking great out there."

Residents whose homes were flooded may have had a slightly different

opinion. Florida officials said initial damage reports showed about 1,500

homes were damaged, the majority of them in Bay County. Severe flooding was

reported in the towns of Dekle Beach and Suwannee. Some 2,000 people spent

Wednesday night at 45 shelters opened at churches and schools.

Two men, a captain and first mate, were killed when their boat capsized

near Panama City Wednesday night. A tornado spawned by Earl was blamed for

the death of a woman in South Carolina.

By Friday, power was restored to areas in Florida hit by the storm and

roads were being cleared and reopened. Sixteen mobile feeding units - six

from the Salvation Army, one from Adventist Community Services and nine

from the American Red Cross - were sent to Hernando, Citrus, Pasco, Levy,

Wakulla and Franklin counties, officials said. No unmet needs were reported.

On Friday afternoon, President Bill Clinton declared families and

businesses in five Florida counties to be eligible for federal disaster

aid. The counties include Bay, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla. Florida

Gov. Lawton Chiles has requested the declaration.

The assistance will be coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management

Agency (FEMA) and can include grants to help pay for temporary housing,

minor home repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses.

Low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be

available to cover residential and business losses not fully compensated by

insurance.

Earl, which had meandered in the Gulf with winds of 100 mph before taking

aim at Panama City, dumped about 2 feet of rain on the area. The highest

storm surge -- 12 feet -- was reported in Franklin County southwest of

Tallahassee. Most of the damage from the storm appeared to be from flooding

rather than high winds, according to officials.

The storm then moved across Florida, losing much of its punch as it cut

through Georgia and the Carolinas.

In Georgia, severe flooding may have been averted because streams and

rivers were at low levels.

Church World Service consultants in Florida were assessing damages, Moeller

reported.

"We're monitoring it," he said Friday. "That's about all we can do at this

point. Everything I hear, every contact I've had, says to me that with

Earl, we got off real easy."

Updated September 4, 1998


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