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2 million flee hurricane

Hurricane Charley could hit south of the originally projected Tampa area, forecasters were saying by Friday afternoon.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 13, 2004

Hurricane Charley could hit south of the originally projected Tampa area, forecasters were saying by Friday afternoon.

Either way, the heavily populated Gulf Coast region is highly vulnerable.

Two million residents and visitors had evacuated Florida as Hurricane Charley edged its 110-mph winds closer to the state's west coast.

Charley's center passed west of the Florida Keys on Friday morning, but only minor damage was immediately reported. Before that, the storm churned across Cuba, ripping off roofs and downing power lines.

Pinellas County saw its biggest evacuation in history. Some 380,000 residents in the Tampa Bay area alone were told to leave coastal or low-lying areas. Most of the evacuations were in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

As Florida faced what could be a powerful Category 3 hurricane, faith-based and voluntary groups were ready.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida, and activated the National Guard to prepare to respond to any damage. Schools and government offices were shut down.

The state emergency operations center was at its highest level of activation. One state emergency management official said Charley was being looked at "with a lot of concern and a lot of planning. We are getting ready for what could potentially land as a Category 3 storm."

The Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster coalition met via conference call on Thursday afternoon, and made plans for additional calls for the next few days.

And, even as emergency managers put their complex operations into gear, preparing, for some people, simply meant checking on their neighbors.

Residents along Florida's southwestern coast were boarding up homes with plywood and buying supplies such as water, canned food and batteries. By Thursday evening, 15 Florida counties had opened shelters with several on standby status.

Local churches were actively helping people prepare their homes and property for the onset of the storms. Churches on higher ground were ready to open their doors as shelters.

Tampa Electric was considering shutting down circuits that serve the downtown Tampa central business district, Harbor Island and David Islands. Tampa Electric was concerned that these low elevation areas would have salt water and flood water intrusion into the underground network that provides electrical services.

"If a water intrusion of that type occurred, a shut-down of that part of our system would be inevitable. By shutting it down proactively, we will be better able to restore power for our customers faster once the danger has passed," said Tampa Electric Vice President-Energy Delivery Tom Hernandez.

"After seasons of relative calm for Florida, and a few false alarms, we really do need to heed the warnings, prepare, and if asked, evacuate," urged Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster.

Florida - and many other states - are far more prepared now than they were in the past. "We're way ahead of where we were five years ago," said Hill.

One potentially vulnerable population: uninsured or underinsured people. "Unfortunately it is too late for the uninsured to gain coverage," said Hill. "Hurricane warnings are posted and flood insurance has a 30-day waiting period after purchase before going into effect."

Elderly people may also have special needs. Of the 6.5 million residents projected to be in Charley's path, some 700,000 are elderly people.

The Salvation Army, working closely with state and local emergency management officials, had 43 disaster emergency response teams ready for immediate action. By Thursday afternoon, 15 of those teams were activated.

The Salvation Army is staffing shelters throughout Florida.

In Tampa, The Salvation Army's Florida Divisional Emergency Disaster Services Center was preparing support equipment such as 53-foot field kitchens with capacities of up to 22,000 meals per day, 48-foot refrigeration trailers, and additional tractor-trailer support for equipment to support comfort station operations around the state.

The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), a coalition of amateur radio operators, was preparing to gear up in the wake of Charley.

The Church of the Brethren's Disaster Child Care volunteers were put also on alert for possible response. "This program provides crisis intervention for traumatized children," explained Helen Stonesifer, who coordinates that program. "Disaster Child Care is set up in American Red Cross service centers, FEMA disaster recovery centers, and other locations. Children come in with their parents as parents apply for assistance. We have put our volunteers on alert." Disaster Child Care volunteers go through rigorous training and role-playing that enables them to interact with children in post-disaster situations.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) put out a call for flood buckets to replenish supplies UMCOR is sending to Florida. UMCOR reported it had contacted United Methodist bishops in what was likely to be the hardest hit areas, and that the bishops extended invitations for UMCOR to provide help once the storms make landfall. UMCOR was also working with local church leaders that will identify and respond to families most in need, said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for disaster response in the U.S. for UMCOR.

"While UMCOR's main focus in any disaster is the long-term recovery, we are also ready to send thousands of flood buckets and cleanup supplies into the affected areas if needed," he said. "UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot in Louisiana is shipping supplies to Florida."

Response leaders from the mid-Atlantic were also concerned about rain that will likely spread along the East Coast when the storm systems travel northward. Heavy rain from the storms was forecast for North Carolina, just a week after Hurricane Alex damaged that state's Outer Banks. Flood watches extended north to Pennsylvania and New York.

A Church World Service report also emphasized that major problems may arise in areas north of Florida that could experience record-breaking rainfall as Bonnie and Charley travel the same path up the east coast toward New York City. The east coast is prime for flooding due to above average rainfall this summer. CWS Disaster Response and Recovery Liaisons (DRRLs) were in contact with partners from the faith community and emergency management in states with projected impact from Bonnie and Charley.

Material resources such as lightweight blankets, personal care kits, and cleanup supplies will be available at the request of local churches and through the CWS DRRLs.

In North Carolina, emergency management officials predicted Bonnie would bring 35-mph winds and up to 3 inches of rain, with Bonnie leaving that state by 8 a.m. Friday morning. Bonnie would not likely be a serious flood threat in that state. But Charley could bring 50 mph winds, said emergency management officials, a slight risk of tornadoes, and could cause serious flooding. Charley will leave North Carolina by 9 p.m. Saturday night.

And disaster response leaders everywhere urged people to find out what is needed before making donations such as used clothing. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, donated tractor-trailer loads of clothing sat on the roadsides - the worst affected areas were inaccessible - until they mildewed and had to be incinerated. Since then, donations of used clothing and other inappropriate items have often become known as "the second disaster."

Similarly, before traveling to Florida to volunteer, find out what is needed, said responders, and work with a responding group that is organizing and coordinating volunteer teams.

A cash contribution to a responding organization is often regarded by response experts as the best way to directly assist disaster survivors.

And one more way people can help is really simple, added Hill. "Please keep Florida in your prayers."

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