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Hurricane Frances’ Fury

September 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the latest on the damage, and the ongoing problems caused by Hurricane Frances. Ray Suarez begins with this look at its impact on Florida.

RAY SUAREZ: A weaker but still strong Frances has pelted central Florida with more than a foot of rain in the last two days. In some spots, the water stands four feet deep. The hurricane has killed at least three people in the United States and two in the Bahamas, where Frances forced thousands from their homes last week. Frances hit the U.S. coastline near Stuart at 1:00 A.M. Sunday with winds of 105 miles per hour, a category two hurricane. It took 22 hours to travel across the state. Exiting the peninsula just northeast of Tampa, the winds were now down to 65 miles per hour, a tropical storm. After crossing the Gulf of Mexico, Frances landed on the Florida panhandle at 2:00 this afternoon. It’s headed North, and likely to move into Alabama and Georgia later this week. Power lines were toppled throughout much of the state, causing widespread outages. Traffic lights dangled over the flooded roads. About one-third of the state’s 17 million people don’t have electricity.

MAN: I’ve been without power since 4:00 P.M. yesterday, running generators. Got some more gas for the generators, some extra water, ice– just stuff we’re going to need.

RAY SUAREZ: Power crews from at least nine states have headed to Florida to restore the electricity.

MAN: It’s tearing us up. Got a lot of trees down, got a lot of wires down. We’re just trying to get the power back on.

RAY SUAREZ: 2.8 million people in 47 counties were told to leave their homes. The largest evacuation in the state’s history sent more than 100,000 people to shelters. Nearly 80,000 are still there. Many others stayed in hotels or with friends or family. Many of those affected were retirees who came to Florida in search of sunshine and good times. Though many are anxious to go home, gasoline is in short supply and many roads remain impassable. A huge sinkhole on I-95 in Palm Beach County has closed that major North-South artery to traffic. And on route one, boats could be seen in the middle of the highway. Authorities have urged people to stay put.

BEN JOHNSON: Our message is turn around, don’t drown, and that’s for people who have to be on the roads. If you do not have to travel, do not do so today. Conditions out there are just too hazardous to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: In Melbourne, at the state’s largest mobile home park, few homes were left intact.

PUBLIC SERVICEMAN: We have substantial structural damage to homes. Every one of them has been damaged in some way, shape, or form.

RAY SUAREZ: Elsewhere, doors and roofs were blown off of homes, siding was torn from trailers, and debris was scattered everywhere. Some lost their homes; others lost their businesses. This store owner had no insurance.

WOMAN: Hopefully I can find a business with a better roof system.

RAY SUAREZ: Vandals have taken advantage of the storm. Police have arrested 11 people for looting. In Palm Beach County, boats were ripped from their moorings and battered against docks and shorelines. Some sunk, others washed ashore. On Hutchinson Island in Saint Lucie County, a bridge and road were washed out, and parking garages and condominiums were flattened, destroying the cars inside. A ballpark in Palm Beach sustained structural damage, and golf courses looked like lakes. State and federal officials are still assessing the storm’s damage, but estimates of its fury start at $2 billion. Most of Florida’s airports shut down over the weekend, though some, including Miami’s International Airport, reopened today. About 8,000 National Guardsmen are already in place assisting with recovery efforts. Frances arrived nearly three weeks after Hurricane Charley’s 140-mile-an-hour winds devastated parts of the state. Some areas were hit by both storms. Charley caused more than $7 billion in damage, and caused 27 deaths.

RAY SUAREZ: And now, Hurricane Ivan, a category three storm, is churning through the Caribbean picking up speed. It’s unclear whether Ivan will hit the U.S.

For more about the aftermath of Frances, and Charley, I’m joined by Dr. John Agwunobi. He’s helping to coordinate efforts at the state’s emergency operations center, and is the secretary of health for the state of Florida.

Dr. Agwunobi, welcome. Is northwest Florida, the panhandle area, now in danger from the remnants of Hurricane Frances, now Tropical Storm Frances?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah, we’re particularly worried about flooding at this point. The storm has lost a lot of its intensity, and it will pass onto our north, but it continues to dump an awful lot of water on our state.

RAY SUAREZ: And in those parts where the hurricane is already passed on, is it still windy? Is it still rainy?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah, we’re still seeing tropical force gusts of wind, probably across half of our state, the upper half of our state. I must say, this storm has moved very slowly across our state and has dumped an awful lot of water; a lot less wind damage with Frances than we saw with charley, but significant amounts of water and some damage.

RAY SUAREZ: What would we say are the worst hit parts of your state?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Clearly, I think, so far with Hurricane Frances, we’re getting early reports from the East Coast of our state. Brevard County, Daytona, points south of that like Indian River and Martin County, all the way down to Palm Beach, are beginning to get reports of significant coastal damage, erosion of beaches, and some structural damage in those counties as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Once the hurricane has passed on, does Florida enter a different stage of danger? Are there people getting ready to resume their lives who are actually still threatened by conditions on the ground?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah, one of the things we saw after Charley, which is consistent with hurricanes in general, is that all too often the true hazards are shown and become evident after the storm has actually passed, as people come out of their shelters, out of their homes and go back into the communities. Very often we see hazards like electrocution from downed power lines; on occasion we see carbon monoxide poisoning because people are using generators indoors because of a loss of electricity; and obviously one of the greatest hazards is flooding. And this storm did dump an awful lot of water, and there is significant flooding in Florida.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Florida is a pretty flat place for anybody who has ever been there– they may have noticed. Is there a danger in having all that standing water around, a public health threat?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah. Over time, actually, we found that the longer water sits the more unhealthy it becomes. Obviously it stagnates. We find a lot of infections of minor wounds from people who have come in contact with the water. All too often the water also becomes a source of good breeding ground for mosquitoes, and that can lead to a whole host of problems. But we’re also always worried about the fact that in the absence of electricity, when you combine that with problems with water, sometimes people get food- and water-borne diseases because there’s no electricity, no refrigerators, and perhaps contamination of well water or other sources of water.

RAY SUAREZ: Are people who are going back to their homes under a boil order, or do you suggest that they boil their water before they start to use it?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah, we actually have most of the counties that were affected by this storm under boil water advisories. They’re being asked to boil water for at least a minute before they… and then let it cool before they drink it. Hopefully over the next few days, as the electricity comes back on in many communities, as water systems begin to ramp up to full pressure again, we’ll begin seeing those boil water advisories drop.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there people who are being urged not to go home quite yet? Are there areas of the state that are just too difficult to get around in?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Yeah, we have a very large population of elderly; we’re very proud of that. Many of them have special health care needs, or perhaps they have equipment that requires electrical power to run at home. We’re urging individuals to be patient, let us go out and evaluate their communities and their neighborhoods, let our professionals at the county level make sure that the hazards that have been laid down as a result of this storm have been cleared away before those individuals go back to their homes. We’re urging people to be careful, be patient. It won’t be long now before we’ve cleaned up and everything will be safe again.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, gasoline was already in short supply, and I guess a lot of people are using home generators to replace the electricity from… they’ve lost from the downed power lines. Is there enough gas in Florida for people to get what they need?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Now that the storm has passed, gasoline will be a problem that will resolve very, very quickly. There are at least 45 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel just off the coast in barges, just waiting for an opportunity to offload into our three main ports: Everglades– Port Everglades– Tampa and Jacksonville. We have extraordinarily… we’ve put together an extraordinary amount of tankers that have been brought into the state through the great work of FEMA, our federal sister agency. They’ve been absolutely fantastic in bringing resources to the state. I have no doubt that any problems related to accessing gasoline and diesel will be resolved very quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: How long is it, Doctor, before you know where Hurricane Ivan is heading, and at this point for planning purposes do you have to assume that at least some part of Florida may feel its effect?

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Well, this is hurricane season, and September… this time in September typically the peak activity for most hurricane seasons. We’ve had a few more than usual. But as we look out into the Atlantic, we urge everyone to take the precautions that we’ve asked everyone to take for hurricane season. It’s a little far out for us to predict that it’s going to come hit Florida, but we’re watching it, as you can well imagine, very, very closely.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining us, Dr. John Agwunobi. Thanks a lot, Doctor.

DR. JOHN AGWUNOBI: Thank you, sir.