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Thousands of FL homes damaged

‘Catastrophic weather system’ pounds communities with more than two-feet of rain, flooding many communities, stretching resources

BY PJ HELLER | MIAMI | August 21, 2008

"We're pretty overwhelmed right now. . . It's not done yet"

—Elizabeth A. Lee, director, Brevard Long-Term Recovery Coalition

After poking along Florida's Atlantic Coast, Tropical Storm Fay began moving back inland Thursday afternoon, bringing strong winds and dumping more heavy rain on a state already coping with "catastrophic" and "historic" flooding.

While Fay has never reached hurricane intensity, it still wreaked havoc as it stalled near the central coast causing extensive flooding, particularly in Brevard County.

"We're pretty overwhelmed right now," said Elizabeth A. Lee, director of the Brevard Long-Term Recovery Coalition.

"This kind of a rain event has just never happened before," noted the Rev. Tom Unrath of Advent Lutheran Church in Melbourne. "It seems to me we got more rain in this one event that we did cumulative for all the storms of 2004 and 2005."

Unrath said the deluge — with up to 30 inches reported in some areas — simply overwhelmed drainage, sewage and septic systems.

"It was just crazy," added Megan Evans, ministry assistant at First Baptist Church of Palm Bay, "I don't think we expected it to be as bad as it was."

By Thursday evening, Fay, which had been sitting just off the Florida coast, was making its way back ashore, marking the third time the storm made landfall in the state. It initially struck the Florida Keys, then made landfall on Florida's west coast and moved across the state, finally sitting and spinning into the Atlantic on Wednesday.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Fay was just west of Flagler Beach and creeping to the west at 5 mph. A tropical storm warning remained in effect from Fort Pierce to the Savannah River at the Georgia-South Carolina border. A tropical storm watch was posted for the Florida Gulf coast from the Suwannee River to Indian Pass.

Flood warnings were also in effect for numerous counties in Florida, including Brevard, Lake, Orange, Seminole, Glades, Hendry and Volusia.

Fay's winds remained steady at 60 mph, with forecasters calling for the winds to begin weakening as the storm moves inland. The storm has already spawned numerous tornadoes, including one in Barefoot Bay in southern Brevard County, where more than 50 mobile homes were damaged, nine of which were destroyed by Tuesday's twister.

"Fay is forecast to move slowly across the northern Florida peninsula tonight and early Friday and be very near the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle by late Friday or early Saturday," the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain in the region, including the Panhandle, southern Georgia and southeastern Alabama, with some areas getting as much as 15 inches. Two to 4 inches of rain were predicted for coastal areas of southern South Carolina.

Although flood waters have begun to recede in some areas, numerous roads remained impassable due to flooding and schools and numerous government offices throughout the region remained closed. Tens of thousands of people were still without electricity in more than a dozen counties. At least one death in Florida has been blamed on the storm; dozens of other fatalities were reported as Fay moved through the Caribbean.

In hard hit Brevard County, residents in north Brevard and on Merritt Island continued to evacuate their homes.

"It's not done yet," Lee said late Thursday afternoon.

Lee estimated thousands of homes in the county were flooded but exact numbers weren't yet known. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began doing assessments Thursday morning. Initial figures said at least 689 homes were seriously damaged. Officials in St. Lucie County said at least 1,350 homes were damaged there but not all areas were included in that initial assessment.

" Brevard Long-Term Recovery Coalition is definitely activating to respond for the long-term recovery effort," Lee said. "We are working with FIND (Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster), Baptist Disaster Relief and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) to try to coordinate an effort for this.

"As we get numbers from FEMA with their assessment, then we'll get our faith-based community friends to partner with us to do a more thorough case management type assessment."

Lee said that her recovery committee was still working on repairing homes damaged by Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. Further complicating matters is the fact that more than 330 homes in Palm Bay were damaged by fire in May.

"They had roof issues and soffit issues. Now with all the rain and everything now we may have totaled homes instead of just repairs," she said. "It's kind of a double whammy for poor Palm Bay."

She said she would like to see repairs to homes damaged by the recent storm to be completed within a year. She has been receiving strong support from statewide recovery organizations and faith-based groups, including Baptist Disaster Relief, UMCOR and Lutheran Disaster Response.

"My phone has been ringing non-stop for two days," she said. "Every long-term recovery organization in the state has called offering assistance. It's really been an overwhelming response and I'm so grateful for all the assistance that everyone has offered."

The Salvation Army said it was sending 10,000 cleanup kits into the area. Other groups, such as Lutheran Disaster Response, said it had volunteers on standby waiting to respond. Church World Service and other organizations were looking at helping out in "vulnerable" communities, according to Florida VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster).

As Fay began to inch its way to the northwest, six shelters remained open in Jacksonville. Statewide, 26 shelters remained activated as of Thursday night, according to the American Red Cross, which reported that 462 people were housed there the previous night.

President George Bush signed a disaster declaration for parts of Florida Thursday afternoon.

"Florida is facing a serious, catastrophic weather system,” Gov. Charlie Crist said.

In addition to storm damage to homes and businesses. Crist noted that significant agriculture losses were expected for growers of sugar cane, corn, peanuts, cotton, hay, tobacco and vegetables. Some of those crops, which were being harvested, could be wiped out, he said.

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