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Georges takes aim at Florida coast

BY SUSAN KIM | SOUTH FLORIDA | September 24, 1998

SOUTH FLORIDA (September 24, 1998) - At 2 p.m. today, it was a beautiful

sunny day in south Florida. By 4 p.m., the winds had picked up to 35 mph.

By 7 p.m., the rain will start. By 1 a.m. Saturday morning, forecasters

predict that 75 mph winds and driving rain will rip mainly through

Florida's west coast but possibly veer toward the central part of the state

as well.

Residents didn't let this afternoon's calm weather quell their urgent

preparations. They continued to shutter and board their homes and

businesses, and many hit the road before evacuation became mandatory.

"During Hurricane Andrew, a lot of people thought they could just

weather the storm. Even when mandatory evacuation was called, some people

still stayed put. A lot of people were killed or injured unnecessarily as a

result. This time, they're listening," said John Murphy, executive director

of Harvest Time, a food bank and distribution center in Orlando.

Murphy has been cautioning residents who suffer severe damage to their

homes to quickly contact state disaster management and to work with Federal

Reserve Management Agency (FEMA) officials as well. "Once you know how the

state will assist you, then other response organizations will be better

able to assess the needs you still have. It helps to get the disaster

assistance process rolling as soon as you can. So many people just wait."

Mandatory evacuation has been called for the Florida Keys and Miami

Beach, and voluntarily evacuation -- soon to be mandatory -- has been

called for Tampa Bay and Sarasota. Schools were closed this afternoon in

these areas as well.

"Even if Georges ends up veering further out to sea, it will still cause

a storm surge that will flood Florida's west coast," said Jody Hill,

executive director of Florida Interfaith Natural Disaster (FIND). This

afternoon, FIND worked with volunteers to get rolls of Visquine, a special

protective plastic house wrap, left in storage after Florida's surge of

tornadoes several months ago. Visquine, which became well-known in Andrew's

aftermath because of its bright blue color, is used to protect wind-damaged

homes from further damage by rain.

"During Hurricane Andrew, up to 30 percent of the severe damage to homes

happened after the storm blew through. We now have trained volunteers who

can wrap 160-170 homes a day," said Hill. FIND is working with Christian

Contractors, an organization of professional builders who offer volunteer

help during disasters. "Roofers and framers are the best people to wrap

houses because they know how to do the job safely," said Hill.

Boarding up homes and offices has been the most visible pre-storm

activity, said Kathy Hanson, a supervisor at Miami's overcrowded Home Depot

store. "But people are buying more than just plywood. We're selling out of

batteries, flashlights, rope, garbage bags, grills, and insect repellent."

As schools and businesses close down, hardware stores are staying open

until the last possible minute.

The Salvation Army in Miami has stocked enough food to feed 500 people

three meals a day for 10 days. Salvation Army staff and other disaster

response facilitators are staying close to telephones and computers,

awaiting word on where to go. "We don't know if we're all going to Key West

or staying here," said Salvation Army Captain Dan Vincent.

Florida University's athletic center has been set up to shelter 2,000

people. Ninety percent of people in the Keys have already been evacuated.

"They airlifted the last 60 patients out of the hospital this morning,"

said Vincent. "One man took a flight back to the Keys to secure his

sailboat. He was the only one on the plane."

Disaster response teams are among the residents staying put until the

last minute. "As long as I believe I can keep my communication and power,

I'll stay here on the coast, nearer to where the storm will hit, where the

urgent need will be," said Jody Hill. "Otherwise we'll move to Orlando."

Today, forecasters said Orlando, once in the storm's danger zone, would

probably be spared from damage. Hotels are already full, and shelters and

food banks are ready and waiting to handle the overflow of displaced


As the wind and rain whips harder during the night, Florida is waiting

it out. "We're ready to be ready," Hill said. FIND is working with BayCare

to ensure a coordinated interfaith disaster response in the Tampa and St.

Petersburg areas.

Georges, which has sustained winds approaching 75 mph, left a wake of

destruction throughout the Caribbean. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

have been declared disaster areas, and Haiti is struggling with mudslides

caused by flashfloods. The storm bore down on Cuba as well.

Officials in all those areas describe the situation as grave. Tens of

thousands remain in shelters in Puerto Rico, where Georges caused at least

$1 billion in damages. The island remained without electricity, and water

service is also interrupted because of the power outage. In the Dominican

Republic, where a number of deaths were blamed on the storm, the capitol

Santo Domingo is laboring under up waist-deep flooding.

Posted 5:00 PM - September 24, 1998

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