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'Frozen in the headlights'

Monster storm Frances is headed toward Florida - and some people are still too shocked by Charley to believe this is even happening.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 2, 2004

"They don't want to hear about another one - not so soon."

—Sharon Wittren

Monster storm Frances is headed toward Florida - and some people are still too shocked by Charley to believe this is even happening.

By Thursday morning, both Florida and Georgia had declared states of emergency, activated the National Guard, and ordered evacuations for nearly a half-million people, with more evacuations to come. Several track models showed the storm could make landfall in Palm Beach County or Vero Beach, Fla., late Friday or early Saturday.

"Frances is larger - if not stronger - and moving slower than Charley," reported Jim Boler, acting conference minister for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ. "Those in the path of Charley were in the storm for about 2 hours. It looks like those in the path of Frances will be in the storm for up to 20 hours. That means more trauma and more damage."

The Category 4 storm packed 145-mph winds Thursday morning and could grow into a Category 5 before making a U.S. landfall. Florida could start seeing effects of the storm as early as Thursday evening.

The hurricane's forward speed was forecast to decrease over the next 24 hours, meaning its powerful winds and heavy rain could linger over wherever it hits. Frances is also about twice the width of Charley - hurricane force winds extend more than 80 miles from the center of Frances. Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center was scheduled to close on Thursday.

Yet even with the monster storm upon them, some people are simply unable to prepare. "They don't want to hear about another one so soon," said Sharon Wittren, who has been an administrative assistant at the First Congregational Church of United Church of Christ in Sarasota for 17 years.

"Some people are frozen in the headlights," agreed Boler.

But First Congregational Church was calmly and quietly preparing to serve as a shelter for the Plymouth Harbor retirement center, should the need arise.

For people just coming back from Charley's wrath, Frances is more than an unwelcome prospect - it's almost unthinkable.

"My mother lives in Port Charlotte," said Wittren. "The homes on either side of her had to be totally gutted in the wake of Charley."

Charley destroyed or heavily damaged more than 30,000 homes and, for many people - especially thousands in mobile homes - Frances is a gut-wrenching reason to wonder: who's next?

On Thursday morning simply trying to comprehend response logistics is tough. "Some hospitals won't be back open for months," said Wittren. Hundreds of people - from hospital patients to schoolchildren - have been relocated in Charley's wake. With Frances coming, the simple question of where to put people has become a puzzling one. "They can't evacuate to hotels," pointed out Wittren.

Florida state emergency management officials urged people to prepare for large-scale evacuations, including possibly reversing lanes of some highways to accommodate fleeing coastal residents. State officials said evacuees shouldn't try to drive hundreds of miles but should find a place just outside of the expected storm surge area.

But for those still homeless in the wake of Charley, and for those left with no transportation - particularly migrant workers in the Arcadia area - another storm could plunge them further into a humanitarian crisis. "People there didn't have a lot to begin with. What now?" asked Wittren.

For starters, response leaders said they will be asking for more assistance from the public - and that cash donations from across the nation are the best way to help. "We are going to have to reach out to the next rung of help," said Boler, "because of what I believe will be a greater width of destruction."

The Rev. Jim Kirk, Florida's disaster response coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), agreed. "If another major hurricane makes landfall in Florida we will be more in need than ever of people from around the country to respond. I think people, especially people of faith, are resilient, and I do believe that compassion from around the country will be the order of the day."

But will the public get tired of hearing about disaster-related needs? Maybe, said response leaders, but they still believed help would come through.

"In my mind, there is very real weariness," said Roy Winter, executive director of Brethren Service Center and Emergency Response. "But when really pushed, people rise to the challenge. If there is human suffering, people will respond."

The challenge, he said, is that media coverage - and public awareness - tends to fade fairly quickly after a disaster strikes. "So the response is brief compared to the need," he said. "Long after the major outpouring of compassion has stopped, survivors will still be living in trailers waiting for help rebuilding."

Over the long-term it's a great chance for people to do something for others in their own country, pointed out Kevin King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service. "We have received not only offers of volunteers, but gifts in kind such as motor homes, vans, and building supplies. There is a sense that many are war-weary from scenes in Iraq - but here is a chance to do some good in our own back yard - and we are witness to that."

If Frances doesn't weaken before reaching Florida, it will be the first time since 1915 that two hurricanes of that magnitude hit the U.S. in the same year, according to National Hurricane Center.

And, from a national perspective, double disasters will no doubt stretch the financial resources of many faith-based disaster response groups. "Just as back-to-back major hurricanes put a strain on the church's human resources, I'm concerned that they will also stretch our financial resources," said Stan Hankins of PDA. "Considering that some judicatories may be impacted by both storms complicates the situation."

Bill Adams, head of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee's North America Disaster Response Services, said he believed public compassion - ignited after Charley's devastation - would continue for those affected by Hurricane Frances. "I am hearing from people with a huge amount of empathy for the residents of Florida."

Wittren agreed: "Compassion will open up," she said.

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