Florida Keys latest target for Georges

BY SUSAN KIM | SOUTH FLORIDA | September 25, 1998


SOUTH FLORIDA (September 25, 1998) -- Hurricane Georges, which took a

slow but devastating pass over the fragile Florida Keys, is sustaining 105

mph winds, causing wind damage and flooding, and sending tropical storm

winds and rain across the southern Florida mainland.

Damage assessment officials will not be able to make their way into the

Keys until early tomorrow morning. More than one million people from Key

West to Tampa have been ordered to evacuate, though many of the Keys'

80,000 chose to remain. No deaths in the U.S. have been reported yet,

though Georges has already killed more than 200 people and left tens of

thousands homeless across the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, state officials, shelters, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and

faith-based organizations on the mainland are struggling to accommodate

thousands of evacuees. Though shelters were well-prepared early on, there

are still logistical challenges.

"At this moment, I'm trying to figure out how to get 300 cots from

Salvation Army shelters in Tampa to Miami by tonight," said Jody Hill,

executive director of Florida Interfaith Natural Disaster (FIND). "We're

not only dealing with evacuees, we're also keeping our eye on the storm's

movements. This little jewel could still come right up the coast."

Georges' westward shift may mean a milder storm for Florida's Atlantic

coast, but it has been devastating for Key West, which has not suffered a

storm of this magnitude for more than two decades.

"A lot of structures in the Keys were more than 25 years old, and were

simply not built to withstand a hurricane. On the mainland, we will fare

better simply because we've been raked by Hurricane Andrew and rebuilt

hurricane-safe structures," said Hill.

The Salvation Army is moving response teams to the Keys early tomorrow

morning, and the Red Cross is preparing an entourage of trucks for response

there as well. "There are also more than 1,300 people in Red Cross shelters

on the mainland," said Red Cross spokesperson Gionne Johnson.

In Miami, the Salvation Army has stocked enough food to feed 500 people

three meals a day for 10 days.

Like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, most state disaster officials

are waiting for Georges to clear the Keys before sending full response

teams. "We will be doing official damage assessment tomorrow," said Miles

Anderson, a disaster response specialist for both the state and the Church

World Service.

"What's particularly challenging about this storm right now is handling

the logistics of so many different stages. We're conducting damage

assessment in the Keys, housing evacuees on the mainland, ordering

evacuation in other areas, and keeping others on standby. There are a

tremendous number of people on the move right now," he said.

More people evacuated early -- a lesson learned during Hurricane Andrew,

said John Murphy, executive director of Harvest Time, a food bank and

distribution center in Orlando. "During Hurricane Andrew, a lot of people

thought they could just weather the storm. Even when mandatory evacuation

was called, some people still stayed put. A lot of people were injured or

even killed unnecessarily as a result.. This time, they're listening," he

said.

Murphy has been cautioning residents who suffer severe damage to their

homes to quickly contact state disaster management and to work with Federal

Reserve Management Agency (FEMA) officials as well. "Once you know how the

state will assist you, then other response organizations will be better

able to assess the needs you still have. It helps to get the disaster

assistance process rolling as soon as you can. So many people just wait."

"We are not out of the woods by any means," said Paul Binder, a Church

World Service disaster response facilitator. "Even if we experience only

tropical storm weather, there will be considerable flooding and beach

erosion."

Binder also said that tornadoes have been causing isolated but severe

damage as well.

"Even if Georges ends up veering further out to sea, it will still cause

a storm surge that will flood Florida's west coast," said Hill.

FIND and other organizations are standing by with rolls of Visquine, a

special protective house wrap used after Florida's surge of tornadoes

several months ago and during Hurricane Andrew. Visquine is used to protect

wind-damaged homes from further damage by rain.

"During Hurricane Andrew, up to 30 percent of the severe damage to homes

happened after the storm blew through. We now have trained volunteers who

can wrap 160-170 homes a day," said Hill. FIND is working with Christian

Contractors, an organization of professional builders who offer volunteer

help during disasters. "Roofers and framers are the best people to wrap

houses because they know how to do the job safely," said Hill.

Flood damage appears to be the biggest concern in the Keys, according to

early reports. Since the top elevation there is 14 feet, high water quickly

sweeps into homes and businesses.

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have been declared disaster areas,

and Haiti is struggling with mudslides caused by flash floods. The storm

bore down on Cuba as well.

Two other Atlantic weather systems, Hurricane Ivan and Tropical Storm

Karl appear to be exhibiting the so-called Fujiwara Effect when two storms

spin around each other. Currently the storms are well out to sea, and

forecasters say neither storm is expected to make landfall in the near

future.

Updated 6:00 PM - September 25, 1998


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