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Hurricane slows;FL still at risk

Hurricane Wilma crawled along on Thursday morning, and forecasters pushed back their prediction of when Florida could see landfall.


Hurricane Wilma crawled along on Thursday morning, and forecasters pushed back their prediction of when Florida could see landfall.

The storm was churning off the eastern shore of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Storm tracks showed Wilma moving through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico on Friday, and Florida could be hit on Sunday - a day later than previously predicted.

On Wednesday, Wilma briefly became the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded.

This week, members of Florida's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster network were exchanging contact information, and many were preparing for power outages. Throughout the state, local emergency operations centers were opening and planning to activate.

The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, which operates a Storm Recovery Center, reported it was ready to send early response teams as soon as the storm passed. Many other faith-based disaster response groups were also ready for immediate response.

Relief teams from The Salvation Army were pre-staging supplies. "We are planning for a six-hour storm," said Kevin Smith of The Salvation Army.

The emotional impact of the storm is already far-reaching as well, as residents of the hurricane-ravaged state react to what the huge hurricane could do to Florida. "I think we're all numb, we just can't believe it," said Jody Hill, director of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster (FIND). "This is beginning to be the norm for our lives."

Disaster responders like Hill all worry about the "FEMA cities" - large communities of residents affected by last year's hurricane season who are now living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "We've got that large FEMA trailer park down there (along the west coast), hundreds of families are still in it and they'll all have to be evacuated."

Hill is also concerned about the impact on the cities devastated by Hurricane Charley last year, cities like Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and Arcadia. "Unfortunately it looks now like (Wilma) will hit an area affected by Charley. If this thing zones in on us, we won't spend Friday shingling roofs, we'll be boarding up houses."

Yet another hope is that all the repairs made to homes damaged by the 2004 hurricane season will hold up should Wilma move through. "There is still an enormous amount of fragile facilities awaiting work group assistance," said Bill Wealand, disaster response coordinator for the United Church of Christ (UCC) in Florida, who worries about the southwest Florida area getting hit again as well.

"If Wilma hits there, it's going to be devastating for a lot of people. We're also aware that with Hurricane Katrina and all the devastation left behind along the Gulf Coast - an enormous amount of our nation's resources are being directed there, which is appropriate. But with the possibility of a category five here, there's a lot of anxiety about what will happen."

Wealand said he has not yet halted the UCC work crews doing repairs in the state as he is waiting until a more confirmed storm track is predicted. He has been in touch with UCC churches across Florida to make sure they are aware of the risks and that they prepare.

"I don't think I have to worry about that as much now, though. People have become so realistic about the potential dangers of hurricanes now that the vast majority will heed the orders when given."

For the disaster relief volunteers at the Islamic Center for Peace in Orlando, the command is to sit tight for now as well. The center's assistant director, Bassem Chaban, said they just brought back a team of volunteers from the Gulf Coast area after doing Hurricane Katrina recovery. He added that they are also focused on the earthquake relief effort in Pakistan, but should Wilma change course, "then of course our priorities would change."

Chaban said their Orlando facility is prepared to be an American Red Cross shelter if needed and they are ready to provide other needed services, such as supply distribution. "We've had our experience with hurricanes since last year, and we feel confident that anything we need to do to help out the community is ready," said Chaban.

"We hope that won't be necessary, but whatever it is we're confident that we can sustain a relief effort here locally."

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