FL Panhandle residents cope

Tempers were short and lines were long.

BY P.J. HELLER | PENSACOLA, Fla. | September 19, 2004

"All we want is gas for a little small generator."

—Delores Garcia

Tempers were short and lines were long over the weekend as Florida Panhandle residents began coping in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan.

With electricity out to hundreds of thousands of utility customers — and not expected to be fully restored for weeks — there were long lines for food, water, ice, gasoline and other items which were in short supply.

“For the most part people are trying to be patient, but there are a lot of people that are getting mad,” said Dr. Kevin Sanders of Pensacola as he stood in a long line to buy lumber to repair the roof of his office.

“I’ve seen a lot of acts of kindness but I’ve also seen a lot of (unhappy) people,” added Kathy Ackerman of Pensacola, who waited in the same line.

Traffic moved at a snail’s pace, with some roads under water or sand or blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines. With few traffic signals working, police and National Guard troops directed traffic at some intersections. Portions of Interstate 10, a major east-west highway, remained shut down due to bridge collapses.

The Pensacola Regional Airport remained closed except for emergency aid flights.

Residents seeking shelter after Ivan roared ashore with its 130-mph-plus winds found hotels booked nearly 200 miles away, causing some angry exchanges. Some 7,000 Pensacola residents sought refuge in shelters when the storm came ashore, according to Mayor John Fogg. Across the region, there were more than 55 shelters open, including 11 for people with special needs.

The storm was blamed for more than 45 deaths in the United States including at least 16 in Florida. It was the third hurricane to hit the Sunshine State this year.

Residents tried to cope as best they could as they surveyed the damage under hot and humid conditions.

“There are a lot of challenges,” Fogg said.

At a RaceWay gas station here, a line of more than 50 cars crowded in the hopes that the boarded-up station would bring in a generator and begin selling fuel.

Motorists milled around the station, chatting with each other or sitting in their vehicles.

Delores Garcia, 73, had been waiting at the station for an hour and half hoping to get some gasoline for her generator. She said she needed to run the generator for an ill family member.

Garcia, who lives in Milton about 15 miles away, had been going from station to station since 7 a.m. hoping to find one that was pumping petrol.

“All we want is gas for a little small generator,” she said. “I’m just looking for five gallons of gas.”

Garcia moved to Milton two years ago from Jacksonville.

“I’m ready to go back,” said the exasperated Garcia.

Later in the day, cars were backed up for about half a mile waiting to get into a gas station that was able to pump fuel.

Faith-based organizations were beginning to mobilize.

The Salvation Army set up two feeding stations in Pensacola as well as in other areas around the Gulf Coast. Disaster relief teams from the Southern Baptist Convention in Oklahoma and Texas also were setting up feeding stations.

The Rev. Walk Jones of Northminster Presbyterian Church said efforts were being made to contact other church leaders to organize relief efforts. Walk said his church, which managed to escape the wrath of the storm with only minor water damage and some downed trees, planned to hold services Sunday morning.

“We may be in the dark but we’ll have services,” he promised.

Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), was in the Panhandle over the weekend doing damage assessments. He traveled there from elsewhere in the state where he was coordinating relief efforts in response to Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

“There are just horrible conditions out there,” he said of the Gulf Breeze area he visited.

Hazelwood said UMCOR had truckloads of relief supplies ready to move into the area but that access into the affected communities was difficult. He said he expected shipments to begin arriving Monday morning.

At a local Home Depot, people stood outside in a long line waiting to buy generators, chain saws, gasoline cans and other items.

Employees handed out water bottles to the shoppers, some of whom stood under umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun.

Home Depot shipped in extra supplies to meet the expected demand and arranged supplies in front of the huge warehouse store for easy access. It also brought in employees from as far away as Texas to help with the crowds.

Helen Marshall of Molino said she had been in line for an hour to buy a generator. Like Garcia, she said she needed it for a family member with medical issues.

“If it was just me, I’d tough it out,” she said.

Asked about whether she would be able to get gasoline to run the generator, she shrugged.

“That’s another big problem,” she said.

At the Bank of America, two tractor-trailers arrived filled with ice and water and employees began handing them out early Saturday morning to thankful motorists. The bank set up a similar distribution point to the east in Fort Walton Beach. By mid-day, all of the supplies had been handed out.

Convoys of trucks from utility companies and tree removal services lined the interstate en route to hurricane affected areas. With portions of Interstate 10 closed, westbound commercial and vehicle traffic was being detoured into Alabama. At one point, the backup on the interstate stretched nearly 10 miles.

Architect Brian Spencer, who lives in the historic downtown district in Pensacola, said he expected “it was going to be a long haul” as far as relief efforts were concerned.

“I think there’s a big gap between people’s expectations and what can be physically accomplished,” he said.

Spencer said many people have simply taken for granted that they will always have water, sewer, electricity and other vital services.

“We individually must take several steps back from our daily expectations, from what we have taken for granted, to see what we have actually as gifts,” he said. “People, including myself, have to remind one another that what we thought was a regular routine of our lives — the ability to always get water and lights and gas — is actually a gift.”

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