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Anxiety grows over Frances

Will Frances make a U.S. landfall - and where?

BY SUSAN KIM | CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. | August 31, 2004

"She had no family, and she had no friends to check on her."

—Ray Hayes

Will Frances make a U.S. landfall - and where? By Tuesday afternoon, the still unknown answer to that question was raising anxiety along the east coast.

At least some track models by Tuesday afternoon had Florida in the path of this dangerous storm. Frances strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane, and was expected to graze Puerto Rico on Tuesday before churning toward the Bahamas.

The storm is still days away from the southeastern U.S. but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were still telling residents in the southeastern U.S. they should closely monitor this hurricane.

Whether Frances hits already-devastated areas of Florida or travels a path similar to last year's Hurricane Isabel, the storm could re-traumatize people already trying to recover from another disaster.

Especially vulnerable are elderly people and children, said mental health workers. Disaster responders themselves - already operating at full tilt in Florida - might also feel overwhelmed.

Two weeks after Hurricane Charley's landfall, teams from the Charlotte County Council on Aging found an elderly woman sitting in her house, just staring. "Part of her roof was wide open," said Ray Hayes. "There were trees down all over her yard. And she wouldn't answer the door because she was afraid of looters.

"She had no family, and she had no friends to check on her. We had to go in through a window to help her."

With satellite images of Frances breathing down his neck, Hayes is still trying to locate some of his clients. "I'm afraid some of these elderly people who have been confined to their homes will get heat illnesses, or have mental breakdowns," he worried. "I know churches and other groups have been really helping elderly people, but many of them can't get out. Their vehicles were destroyed or they can't drive.

"People have to get out into their neighborhoods and check on them," he said.

Children may be also especially vulnerable to feeling anxious right now, pointed out Tania Garcia, a licensed clinical social worker who is director of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Charlotte County. "Many children went back to school this week, and many are getting adjusted to relocated schools."

Seven schools in Charlotte County were so damaged they are unusable. So the school district, which encompasses 21 schools and some 20,000 students, switched to double schedules. That means some students will spend only 20 minutes in the cafeteria for lunch.

Some children might show the stress immediately but others might not show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder for 30 to 90 days, she said. "Then they might start experiencing nightmares, short tempers, vivid dreams, or flashbacks."

Trained volunteers from the Church of the Brethren's Disaster Child Care program are working in Florida, helping to care for children while their parents cope with disaster-related paperwork and cleanup.

With trauma from Hurricane Charley still fresh - and Frances churning closer - it's also becoming difficult this week for responders in Florida to split their time between current response and potential preparation for a new hurricane.

Response in Florida is moving painfully from an emergency phase into short-term recovery, all while responders are trying to form long-range plans. It's hard to throw a new storm into the mix.

"But Frances has been the topic of a lot of conversation," said Tom Davis, a Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison. "It is very much on the minds of everyone here."

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