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Storm warning

Election | ELECTION: With costs estimated at $10 billion and counting, Hurricanes Charley and Frances were two of the worst natural disasters to strike Florida in more than a decade. Besides roofs, trees, and citrus crops, the twin storms may have blown away assumptions about the presidential race, as well

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

PALM BEACH, Fla. - Every elected official knows that voter sentiment can shift with even the slightest of political winds. For George W. Bush and John Kerry, the question is: What happens to those voter sentiments after back-to-back hurricanes?

The answer to that question could decide who spends the next four years in the White House. Political pundits widely believe that Florida will once again determine the outcome of the presidential race. But while much of the nation will be voting on issues such as the economy and the war on terror, Hurricanes Charley and Frances will weigh heavily in a state that went for President Bush by just 537 votes in 2000.

In other words, predicting the outcome in Florida this year is about as dicey as predicting the path of a storm.

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Though Frances came ashore on Sept. 5 as a much-weakened Category 2 storm, her slow, wet march across the state added as much as $4 billion in insured damages to the estimated $7 billion tab for cleaning up after Charley. From Palm Beach on the east coast to Tampa on the west, city streets were left waist-high in floodwaters. Winds in excess of 105 mph destroyed thousands of homes, adding to the 30,000 families left homeless by last month's more violent storm. Some 3 million Floridians learned they could be without power for as much as a week, and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson warned that the year's entire grapefruit crop might be lost.

With summer temperatures soaring into the mid-90s in Frances's wake, water and ice became precious commodities in even the most-posh beachfront communities. Residents lined up for hours outside distribution centers operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Guard was called in to deal with flaring tempers and line-jumpers.

"This is ridiculous," groused a middle-aged man waiting in his Toyota outside a Palm Beach County Home Depot store that was designated as a FEMA distribution point. "They say we can only get two bags of ice. I've got a family of five; how long is that going to last me? I'll have to be right back here tomorrow, running all the gas out of my car. Have you seen the lines at the gas station? I need to be fixing my roof, but I'm spending all my time waiting in lines, waiting for handouts. I feel like a beggar. "

Others begged to differ. A few cars ahead of the grumbler, who refused to give his name, Kathy Smith said she was grateful for the help from Uncle Sam. "I think they're amazingly well-organized," she said as she eyed FEMA workers distributing water by the case. "I mean, they're still helping out with Charley on the west coast, but they've got thousands of people over here, too. I don't know what we'd do without them."

For President Bush, reelection may hinge on how many Floridians agree with Ms. Smith-and how many side with the grumbler. With 2,700 FEMA personnel mobilized in Florida after Hurricane Frances, the federal response was difficult not to notice. Anticipating an even larger storm, FEMA dispatched 2.6 million gallons of water and 7.3 million pounds of ice to the latest hurricane zone. Despite roadways clogged by storm debris and residents returning from temporary exile, hundreds of relief stations were up and running within hours after Frances blew through.

If federal relief workers were hard to miss on the ground, their boss was even harder to miss on the airwaves. Accompanied by a crush of television reporters, President Bush surveyed hard-hit Port St. Lucie on Wednesday, followed by a visit to Miami's National Hurricane Center, where weary meteorologists were keeping an eye on Hurricane Ivan hundreds of miles to the south.

The president flew into Florida with a just-signed $2 billion emergency appropriations bill he had pushed through Congress the night before-and with promises that even more money was on the way. "Once again, Florida has faced the devastation of a hurricane, and once again the people of Florida are showing their character," Mr. Bush told a bank of television cameras at the National Hurricane Center. "I want the people of Florida to know the federal government is doing everything we can to help you."

The Sept. 8 visit was the president's third hurricane-related stop in Florida in recent weeks. With residents' attention riveted by the storms, President Bush's most recent forays received far more statewide media coverage than his previous two dozen visits, giving him the equivalent of millions of dollars in free advertising.

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