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'A lot of fear' in FL

Nearly 3 million residents on Florida's east coast were urged to evacuate - but some of them couldn't go anywhere.

BY SUSAN KIM | WEST PALM BEACH, FL | September 25, 2004

"I lost everything I had. It was like my house exploded."

—Johnny Smith

Nearly one million residents on Florida's east coast were urged to evacuate Saturday morning - but some of them couldn't go anywhere.

Hurricane Charley destroyed their cars. Or they lost their jobs when Hurricane Frances damaged hundreds of businesses, and they can't buy gasoline.

Or they were simply too frightened to move. "There is a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety," said Pam Cahoon, head of Christians Reaching Out to Society (CROS), an ecumenical organization that offers everything from meals to childcare to basic computer training for people in need.

By Saturday morning, millions of people in Florida were feeling like they were in need of a respite from what has become a relentless hurricane season.

Anxiety about Jeanne is even more painful because, for several days, national headlines have talked about the 1,100 people the storm has killed in Haiti. Florida has a large Haitian population, many of whom have family members in their home country.

Some anxieties are more hidden than others, said Cahoon. "I was in line at a restaurant, and there was a Haitian woman next to me, and she was saying how relieved she was to hear that her family in Haiti was okay, how worried she'd been," said Cahoon. "I felt like I was doing pastoral care right then and there."

CROS has an outreach program that focuses on the Haitian community, and the needs Cahoon has seen this hurricane season are beginning to surpass anything she's seen in her 26 years of community outreach. "The needs are hugely exacerbated by these hurricanes," she said.

"People are coming in and they are hungry. They need funds for emergency rent and utilities. And, with the power outages, people are coming in with serious medical issues - they haven't had dialysis. Their oxygen is off. I'm talking about really serious problems."

For responders still focusing on a constant stream of people needing emergency assistance, it's almost unthinkable that Jeanne could pile on more needs. "Right now we're focusing on emergency assistance," said Cahoon. "As for the long-term - we'll figure it out."

For now, many responders are trying to figure out how to manage concurrent major disasters - Florida's triple hurricane damage, Alabama's devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan, and recent mid-Atlantic flooding.

"For the first time in my seven years with UMCOR, I can't attend to every U.S. disaster," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). "The good news is that our executive staff has worked well as a team and people who normally don't have responsibility for U.S. response are helping to cover these multiple events.

"My focus on the work of immediate response and preparing for long-term recovery after three hurricanes which have produced more than 550,000 FEMA registrations in Florida alone, is taking an extraordinary amount of work and energy."

Nearly one in five homes in Florida sustained damage.

In Arcadia - and many towns statewide - people are still looking for a place to live. Johnny Smith, a 63-year-old retired state employee, spent Friday riffling through the better-looking piles of debris set out by the curb for trash pickup.

"I lost everything I had," he said. "It was like my house exploded. I'm trying to scavenge what I can get." He walked away with a stack of old books, including a Bible.

Alphonso Luther joined him on the streets, hunting for anything he could use. "I have no money. All of my stuff is ruined. My glasses broke. I need new glasses, and I need food."

Area churches were trying to meet those needs, opening as comfort stations. "We spent 15 days giving out clothes and food," said 68-year-old John Fowler, a member of the First Christian Church in Arcadia. "The Sunday after Charley, we had services right there in the parking lot."

A single state hasn't been hit by four hurricanes in one season since Texas in 1886. Together, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan have caused billions of dollars in damages and have killed at least 70 people in the state.

Relief leaders have expressed concern that a disaster-weary public will be unwilling - or unable - to support what looks like a long-term recovery that will take years.

But the compassion of volunteers seemed to be still alive in Florida this week. Dan Wallwork, 19, traveled from New Jersey, arriving in Florida three days before Jeanne's potential landfall, to help for the next few weeks. A student at a northern New Jersey community college and a member of the Fairmount Presbyterian Church, Wallwork said he is taking the semester off to volunteer.

"I felt like God is calling me to do something," he said.

Sean Mulcahy, a Catholic priest, shared Wallwork's feelings. "I've been cutting fallen trees all day," he said on Friday. "A lot of elderly people still can't get up their driveways to their houses."

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