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Heavy rains replace FL fires as threat


SOUTH FLORIDA (June 11, 1999) -- Floridians frazzled by wildfire threats

two weeks ago are mopping up after this week's relentless rain. A number of

homes and businesses were damaged because of leaky roofs, flooding in

low-lying yards and parking lots, and overflowing storm sewers.

Car damage from high water was also reported. Pompano Beach resident

Veronica Duncan said she drove through two feet of water Wednesday morning.

"We've gone from drought to drench," she said.

The rainfall - a late start to the regular wet season - was so heavy that

drainage systems and natural barriers were overwhelmed by rising waters

Tuesday evening. In Broward County, the hardest hit area, more than 13

inches of rain fell midweek. A rainfall that high occurs here only every

five to 10 years. A mobile home park was under an evacuation warning when

the water came a half inch from entering the trailers.

The American Red Cross opened one shelter in Broward county but was able to

close it the same night. "Things appear to be returning to normal," said

Leila Haddad, Red Cross spokesperson in Broward County.

The water is receding but more rain is predicted for the weekend.

Meanwhile, many disaster response officials are attending the Governor's

Conference on Hurricanes in Miami. Hurricane season started June 1.

Two weeks ago, nearly 300 volunteers and 20 local churches in south Florida

were on standby to respond to possible evacuations from ago from a

26,000-acre grassland fire. Even after firefighters tamed the fire, a

subsurface smolder blanketed communities with thick, smelly smoke.

Road travel became hazardous, and at least one person was killed in a car

accident caused by lack of visibility. Schools were canceled, and fire

dispatchers logged more than 100 calls per hour when smoke was at its

heaviest. The skies cleared only after several days after the wind

unaccountably shifted. Three counties - DeSoto, Collier, Glades -- reported

water shortages.

Most residents seem to be taking the recent extreme weather swings, as well

as the possibility of looming hurricanes, in stride. "The rain is a good

thing. And I'll take a slight flood if it means we're out from under the

fires," said Connie McGarry, a Delray Beach resident whose home was under

heavy smoke two weeks ago.

"I know it sounds scary to live here, but we're used to it," she added. "A

rain shower is a blessing - okay, I know this was more than a shower! But

usually the ground absorbs it in no time. We just don't think of the

weather as gradual. I try to think of it as living in the Caribbean."

Many interfaith groups in Florida are helping residents prepare for

disasters, including Mustard Seed Ministries, Flagler County Disaster

Relief Coalition, Seminole Heart, and Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster (FIND).

Even in rain-soaked yards, grass is starting to grow because the drought

has lifted, and trees are saved, said Port St. Lucie resident Diane Hines.

"Florida never seems to be on an even keel," she said. "My neighbor has

been trying to paint her house for weeks, now. First it was too dry and

hot, now it's too rainy."

The flooding may be simply irritating to most people, but at least one

person was injured this week when residual leaks in an apartment building

in Pompano caused the drywall to cave in. A nursery in the rural Plantation

acres subdivision lost hundreds of dollars in inventory, and ceiling tiles

caved in at Fort Lauderdale's city hall. The police station in Sunrise had

to relocate cars when parking lots flooded. And when storm sewers failed in

some neighborhoods, sewage bubbled up into driveways and yards.

Neighborhoods that had no storm sewers were most vulnerable to flooding.

South Florida's drainage system, which was designed when there were about

500,000 people living there, today must accommodate a population of five

million. The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to overhaul the system

with a $7.8 billion re-plumbing plan that would store billions of gallons

of the wet season's excess water in deep wells and reservoirs that would be

used to replenish the Everglades as well as cities and farms during dry


Many people say they'd rather have flooding than fire, and a recent

National Science Foundation study found that, while the number of deaths

and the costs in the U.S. associated with hurricanes decreased from 1975 to

1994, those numbers rose for wildfires.

"We prayed for rain, and so I call this an overabundance, not a flood,"

said Edna Bond. "Now we'll just pray for it to go away. A lot of people

leave Florida for the summer. But I stay put. Today, the sky was black for

awhile but now the sun is shining."

Duncan, who has lived in south Florida for 32 years, said that extreme

weather is "God's way of telling people to wake up."

"People start to realize they're not as self-sufficient as they thought.

That brings some people to faith that may not have had it. Extreme weather

like this can either make you better - or bitter. I think it makes me

better," she said.

Posted June 11, 1999

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