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Storms and stress

Weather | Floridians work to recover from Jeanne as they hope that a devastating chain of hurricanes has finally been broken

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

Geoffrey Donnan once promised his wife he'd buy her lakefront property someday. After Hurricane Jeanne turned the yard of their rural Fellsmere, Fla., home into a swamp complete with fish swimming in it, Mr. Donnan told her he'd fulfilled his pledge.

The Donnans were among millions of Floridians hit by the ferocious dual punch of both Jeanne and her predecessor, Hurricane Frances. On Sept. 25, they and seven grandchildren persevered through Jeanne's 120-mph eyewall huddled in a walk-in closet. When the family emerged, the forested land around their home resembled piles of giant pickup sticks: Huge fallen trees lay crisscrossed, penning in floodwater to form a mosquito-bitten swamp. Elsewhere on the property, goats waded in water up to their bellies.

Mr. Donnan, 60, estimates that it will cost $10,000 to clear and drain his property, but said, "We feel most blessed, since most of the people around us have suffered damage far more significant than we have."

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Indeed, Jeanne killed at least six people in Florida then assaulted three other states, killing two more in South Carolina. The Category 3 storm was the fourth to hit Florida in six weeks, making this hurricane season among the most active on record. But what makes 2004 most remarkable is that of the season's five major storms-Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, and Karl-four have made landfall in populated areas. Only Karl spun out his fury safely at sea.

The freakish four-storm chain that pummeled Florida has been blamed for 73 deaths in the state and has also triggered the largest cleanup effort in Federal Emergency Management Agency history. The massive effort includes 5,000 relief workers spread over 15 states. Nearly 3,800 National Guardsmen are providing security, directing traffic, distributing supplies, and keeping order. In Florida alone, aid workers have passed out 16 million meals since the storms began.

The meteorological piling-on has shell-shocked the Sunshine State economy. Officials estimate insured losses from Jeanne at between $5 billion and $9 billion. The total damage wrought by all four hurricanes is estimated as high as $20 billion. The state's tourism industry has taken an especially severe beating: The storms wiped out oceanfront resorts, closed theme parks, and forced cruise ships to delay or cancel voyages, a development with trickle-down effects that reach the storm-torn Caribbean, a region that can ill afford more financial loss.

President Bush has so far asked Congress for at least $12.2 billion in financial aid to Florida and other Southern states. Though the Sunshine State has been by far the hardest hit, Jeanne also pummeled Georgia and the Carolinas, spawning floods and tornadoes and damaging buildings. State and federal disaster-relief teams, along with the Red Cross and such faith-based groups as Samaritan's Purse, fanned out across the region delivering food and supplies.

But relief is still in short supply in Haiti where Jeanne unleashed her fury on Sept. 18, leaving more than 1,500 people dead. Lacking civil infrastructure, the island nation remains in chaos: When aid workers appear with relief supplies, starving and desperate crowds turn violent. Meanwhile, some people are stealing necessities such as rice and water, and selling them at many times their value.

The hurricane season, which began in June, officially peaked on Sept. 10. But the first three weeks of October are still considered ripe for new storms, according to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. Even if none form, 2004 will go down as a rare year in which the National Hurricane Center (NHC) retires at least four of the names it uses to designate storms. Meteorologists retire a name only when a storm is so deadly or so costly that the future use of that name on a different storm would be inappropriate. When this hurricane season ends on Nov. 30, NHC will lay to rest the names Charley, Ivan, Frances, and Jeanne. Residents of the Caribbean and southeastern United States are hoping 2004's ignominious retiree list remains only four names long.

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