Florida Keys hit hard by Hurricane George

BY SUSAN KIM | SOUTH FLORIDA | September 26, 1998

SOUTH FLORIDA (September 26, 1998) -- The Overseas Highway, the only

road into the Florida Keys, reopened at dawn this morning as damage

assessors made their way into the area. The estimated two-thirds of Keys

residents that heeded mandatory evacuation orders -- about 50,000 people --

waited in miles of snarled traffic to get back to their homes.

Early damage reports show flooding, extensive structural damage

including homes that have been washed out to sea, severely damaged roofs,

downed power lines, low water pressure, and damaged cars and boats. Water

on the islands was still thigh-high this afternoon, and power will be out

throughout much of the Keys for at least 3-5 days.

Since the top elevation there is 14 feet, high water quickly swept into

homes and businesses.

"People from the state, Red Cross, Salvation Army, faith-based

organizations -- they are all flying in to assess damage and to help

today," said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida Interfaith Natural

Disaster (FIND). "We expect to have more final estimates on damage, as well

as an organized response plan in place by late Monday."

So far, severe flooding and power outages are the biggest early

concerns, according to Miles Anderson, Church World Service disaster

response facilitator. "I think we'll see the worst structural damage in Key

West," he said.

"We are still conducting official damage assessment," he said. "What's

particularly challenging about this storm right now is handling the

logistics of so many different stages. We're conducting damage assessment

in the Keys, trying to get evacuees back to their homes, ordering

evacuation in other areas, and keeping others on standby. There are a

tremendous number of people on the move right now," he said.

The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross moved response teams and

trucks to the Keys this morning. Food, water, and personal supplies are

also being collected and distributed by the Florida Baptist Convention and

the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

United Methodists sent a response team to the Keys this morning to

assess damage and plan a response according to Bill Rhan, disaster response

coordinator for the Florida United Methodist conference.

Georges took more than 10 hours -- with steady 90 mph winds gusting to

105 mph -- to pass completely over the Keys. The fragile islands have not

suffered a storm of this magnitude since Hurricane Donna hit in 1960.

"A lot of structures in the Keys were more than 35 years old, and were

simply not built to withstand a hurricane. On the mainland, we would have

fared better simply because we've been raked by Hurricane Andrew and then

rebuilt hurricane-safe structures," said Hill.

Meanwhile, residents of southwest Florida were relieved to experience

little more than a typical early-fall storm, although two tornadoes in

Tampa and Arcadia caused some damage.

"Even the storm surge wasn't quite as high as expected," said Paul

Binder, Church World Service disaster response coordinator. "Now we are

waiting to see what assistance the Florida panhandle, Alabama and Louisiana

will need. Hurricanes in the Gulf [of Mexico] are very unpredictable.

Something else -- a cold front -- could come sweeping down from the west

and change things completely."

More people evacuated early -- a lesson learned during Hurricane Andrew,

said John Murphy, executive director of Harvest Time, a food bnak and

distribution center in Orlando. "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 injured or

even killed unnecessarily as a result. This time, they listened," he said.

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."

Voluntary evacuations are underway in the Florida panhandle, and

communities along the Gulf of Mexico's northern coast were put on alert.

Forecasters say Georges, which is still sustaining 105 mph winds, could

strengthen before it makes landfall again.

Hurricane Georges has taken more than 300 lives, and hundreds more

people remain missing. Damage estimates in the Caribbean now top $2 billion

and are likely to go higher.

Electricity is slowly being restored in Puerto Rico so that residents

can generate much-needed water. Though power was restored in the capitol of

San Juan on Friday, nearly 30,000 people still remain in shelters in Puerto


Bridges and other structures took extensive damage in the Dominican

Republic as well, and Haiti is struggling with mudslides caused by flash

floods. The storm bore down on Cuba as well.

Church World Service is organizing local churches that will provide Gift of the

Heart clean-up and health kits to hurricane survivors in these areas

and others.

Updated 6:00 PM - September 26, 1998

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