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Thousands prepare for Frances

Thousands of people were preparing on Wednesday as Hurricane Frances loomed.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 1, 2004

"People's sense of safety is crushed not only by the shock of the first trauma, but by the very real possibility that another one will follow."

—Mary Gaudreau

Thousands of people were preparing on Wednesday as Hurricane Frances loomed.

For those recently impacted by disasters - especially devastated Florida communities - it's simply hard to feel safe.

Closing in on the Bahamas on Wednesday, the Category 4 storm could become a Category 5 hurricane with 156-mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm could hit anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina as early as Friday - but Florida increasingly looked like the likely possibility, forecasters said.

A second major hurricane for Florida is now such a real possibility that all 20 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster recovery centers will shut down at the close of business on Wednesday.

The federal disaster field office will remain open and mostly staffed, said a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official. But FEMA is allowing people who want to leave the opportunity to rotate out of the operation until Frances moves through the area. "Take care of your people," the official advised leaders from faith-based and voluntary agencies.

It's simply hard to feel safe after a hurricane - even if a second one isn't on its heels - because, for the first month after a disaster, and often longer, "people are likely to feel less safe in their day-to-day activities and even within their relationships," explained the Rev. Mary Gaudreau, director of care ministries for Oklahoma United Methodist Disaster Response.

Gaudreau was recently deployed to Florida to assess spiritual care needs in the wake of Hurricane Charley.

"That lack of feeling safe may simply feel like a nagging sense that something is not quite right or it can in some cases, show up in more serious anxiety symptoms," she said.

Anxiety was indeed high as Florida faced what could be the worst double hurricane strike on one state in at least a century. Should Frances make landfall in Florida as a Category 4, it would be the first time since 1915 that two hurricanes of that magnitude have hit the U.S. in the same year, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Frances passed to the north of Puerto Rico on Tuesday but no major flooding was reported. Hurricane force winds extended 80 miles from the center of the storm.

Many faith-based disaster response agencies reported they were preparing to secure or reposition supplies in Florida so they could immediately respond to Frances.

In that state, more than 175,000 people with damages from Charley had tele-registered with FEMA by Wednesday.

"People's sense of safety is crushed not only by the shock of the first trauma, but by the very real possibility that another one will follow," said Gaudreau.

How can people prepare without letting anxiety take over their lives?

Right now that's a hard line to toe. "Since some degree of hyper-vigilance is one of the early predictable reactions to trauma, it becomes very difficult for persons to draw the line between reasonable, cautious respect for the potential storm and reactions that are based in fear and anxiety," she said. "When we're overstressed, our reactions are often reduced to fight-flight-freeze and in the actual crisis we may not be able to think clearly about how to react to a potential new storm."

Right now in Florida, preparing for another major disaster is a logistical challenge that can seem overwhelming. Some state officials are worried about finding hotel rooms and shelters for people who may have to be evacuated. Many hotel rooms in the southern half of the state are occupied by people Charley left homeless and by responders.

And responders themselves - now working long hours responding to Charley - feel torn between moving on with relief operations and preparing for Frances. "We have all worked hard to respond to the needs of those affected by Hurricane Charley," pointed out Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster. "The faith/nonprofit response has been amazing. Over 37,000 care-giving volunteers have responded through 79 of our faith, social organizations, and allied agencies."

Faith-based and voluntary agencies have removed debris from more than 10,000 homes, and have put protective covers over some 4,600 more.

With top sustained winds of 145 mph, Charley destroyed or heavily damaged more than 30,000 homes and killed 28 people. On Wednesday, seven shelters were still open in Florida housing 181 individuals.

Responders need to take time now to get ready themselves, urged Hill. "Please do take the time to prepare yourself," she said. "Stay safe."

And preparing - in a reasonable way - might even be a source of comfort, added Gaudreau. "A sense of safety and control are often linked, so my best suggestion would be for individuals in the path of the storm to take control of their own safety by following the advice of emergency officials in preparing for the storm, and making a limited, reasonable list of what needs to be done."

Finally - some anxious feelings are perfectly normal, reassured Gaudreau. "Know that, in most cases, you will be experiencing normal reactions to this abnormal situation," she said.

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