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Hurricanes' Damage to Poor 'Beyond Imagining'

September 28, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg and Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writers

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Life was tough enough on Avenue D, a strip of worn cinder-block stores, homes, churches and corners inhabited by drug dealers. Then the hurricanes came, and much of what Alana Wyche owned -- plus her job -- vanished in the winds.

"My home is wet, my clothes were destroyed, my roof is gradually caving in," she said. On Monday morning, the 20-year-old renter was tossing out shoes before throwing away her furniture, which without electricity to run air conditioners was moldering in the heat.

A child-care aide, Wyche had been without a paycheck for three weeks: Her workplace was damaged in Hurricane Frances and declared unsafe.

All she had to look forward to now, Wyche said, was government aid. "I called FEMA," she said. "They said they are going to help me."

In Florida's devastating year of four hurricanes, the owners of beachfront estates, yachts, golf course apartments and middle-class homes have taken a material beating totaling billions of dollars -- not to mention the damage done to the tourism and agriculture industries.

But "the impact that we are seeing on the poor, it's just beyond imagining," said Margaret O'Brien-Molina, a public information officer for the American Red Cross.

"These people were poor before, but there were shelters, places for them to go," O'Brien-Molina said from a shelter in Daytona Beach. "Now there is nothing."

"A lot of people who were living from paycheck to paycheck now are in a world of problems," said Paula Lewis, Democratic chairwoman of the St. Lucie County Board of Commissioners. "Not that I don't feel sorry for people who may have lost properties on the beach. But they could probably afford it. There are other people out there, I don't know how they are functioning."

About 50 miles north of Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast, Fort Pierce boasts one of Florida's oldest black settlements, with Avenue D a main commercial thoroughfare. In recent years, the neighborhood also has attracted poor whites and Mexican and Haitian immigrants. There are numerous houses of worship, some of which sustained significant damage in the hurricanes, as well as multiple storefronts where, police and residents say, dealers hawk cocaine and marijuana.

Outside Monday, some of the blue tarps put on homes damaged by Frances lay on the pavement or were wrapped around tree trunks, evidence of the additional calamity visited by Jeanne. Street signs and palm trees were down, and shingles and tar paper that had peeled off roofs littered the street.

"It's going to be a tremendously hard time for a while to recover," said Bernard Harrell, 64, owner of a small grocery store on Avenue D.

Harrell said the government might offer assistance, but he was skeptical it would fully compensate people on Avenue D for their losses.

"Sure, FEMA is going to give a check for a while, but how long?" Some people, Harrell said, probably wouldn't make good use of the checks anyway.

An acquaintance, he said, already was sent $500 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fix damage to her house from Frances, but spent the money to rent a motel room and throw a party for friends.

And as a result of the hurricanes, tens of thousands of Floridians no longer have jobs: 16,474 filed disaster-related unemployment claims after Charley; 22,948 after Frances and 4,206 after Ivan, said Warren May, director of communications for the state Agency for Workplace Innovation.

On Monday, the agency was beginning to accept jobless claims from Jeanne, the hurricane that struck before midnight Saturday.

"Clearly these storms have had a tremendous impact," May said from Tallahassee.

The recent succession of storms also has trampled Florida's citrus industry, which traditionally has provided jobs for many African American residents of Fort Pierce. Half the state's grapefruit crop, a specialty of the groves in this part of Florida, may have been destroyed. To find temporary jobs for fruit pickers and other workers, Lewis said, the state already had been in contact with local growers.

The situation could be even more dire for Florida's migrant agricultural laborers, many of whom are in the country illegally.

"We have gone into affected areas with bilingual workers on our trucks, trying to get out the message that people don't have to worry about their immigration status if they need help," said Carol Lang, Florida director of social services for the Salvation Army in Tampa.

"These people were living in tin shacks," Lang said. "Now they have nothing -- and no jobs. We have given them food, blankets, hygiene kits, tried to find them shelter. We have gotten so many letters of thanks from immigrants. That population has actually responded to our efforts more than any other."

Jacob Dipietre, a spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush, said that the state was "doing everything we can" to assist everyone affected by the hurricanes, without regard to income level.

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