Hurricane ills build as time passes

Lack of electricity, housing put stress on Florida families

August 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Disaster relief officials warned yesterday that stressful housing conditions, intense summer heat and diseases from tainted food and water could cause the problems from Hurricane Charley to increase in the coming days.

Until electricity is restored, thousands of residents could be subject to heat stroke in the muggy 90-degree weather, poisoning from eating spoiled food and diseases caused by sewage-contaminated water, the officials said. As of last night, more than 490,000 people still were without power.

Touring parts of the ravaged western Florida coast, Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, said there were "so many health areas" that posed a risk in the aftermath of the storm.

"The president has demanded that every federal department do whatever they possibly can to aid the recovery effort," he said. "Every request will be fulfilled to satisfy all of Florida's needs."

But five days after the powerful Category-4 storm ripped a path across the state, federal and local officials were clearly sending a message that residents should prepare for a frustratingly slow reconstruction process that could take months.

"People are pushing as hard as they can" to rebuild and get services going again, said Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, who toured the coast with Thompson. He predicted that the "disappointment and sorrow" caused by the storm's wreckage would soon turn into frustration as reconstruction dragged on.

Yesterday, officials said the death toll from the storm had risen to 20, after an 86-year-old man who had evacuated his home fell and died in a motel.

Government and private relief officials also said they are concerned about the psychological strain on thousands of people who have fled storm-ravaged homes to stay with friends and relatives, in crowded shelters or cramped motel rooms. Though many are getting along fine now, some people are likely to find those living conditions unbearable within days, officials said.

Experts said domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide could result from the stress and anxiety of being displaced. The Red Cross has mobilized hundreds of mental health experts to begin door-to-door visits with displaced people, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing to locate long-term temporary housing for storm victims.

"There is this honeymoon phase of a disaster response when people are pulling together and helping each other," said Peter R. Teahen, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Florida. "But if they are staying in other people's homes, after a week or 10 days those people want their house back and everyone is getting on each others' nerves. Then you see the stress level and anxiety levels go up."

At a shelter in Englewood west of Punta Gorda, Crystal Hanisch, 25, said she, her husband and their two small children stayed briefly with her husband's parents after the hurricane blew the roof off her apartment unit and caused part of her living room roof to collapse.

But her mother-in-law was preoccupied caring for her severely ill husband, and the house seemed too cramped for the family's 5-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter. So they decamped to a Red Cross shelter in a middle school, where they live on cots and share bathrooms with dozens of others.

"I'm tired, so tired," Hanisch said as she cradled her infant daughter on a cafeteria bench. "I just miss being able to shower when I want to shower."

But Hanisch said she had no clear options for short-term housing. She has been told the waiting list for public housing is prohibitively long, and she has been unable to reach federal disaster relief officials on the telephone. She would consider moving her family to her stepfather's home in Georgia, but she has been unable to reach him.

"I have no idea what we'll do," she said.

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