PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Don't say the "I" word around here. These folks don't want to hear it. They are too weary and devastated to think and talk about Hurricane Ivan, but as they rebuild their city, that's exactly what they're doing.
"If Ivan comes, I'll be through," said Tim Humphrey, whose home and boat were damaged by Hurricane Charley. "I'll pack my stuff in that little blue car. I ain't coming back."
For more than a decade, this precariously located peninsular state had avoided a direct hit from a hugely destructive hurricane. Then Hurricane Charley roared ashore here Aug. 13 on the Gulf Coast, killing nearly 30 and causing billions of dollars in damage. Over the weekend, Hurricane Frances delivered a second blow, striking Florida's Atlantic Coast and slowly churning its way across the state while causing billions of dollars more in damage. Less than a week later, a third major hurricane, Ivan, is boiling through the Caribbean, much too close for the comfort of many Floridians.
All of this, and hurricane season is just reaching the halfway mark.
Ivan is the conversation topic on nearly every radio station, even sports-themed radio shows. Time of day revolves around the updates from the National Hurricane Center. Even towns that haven't taken a direct hit have grown tired from worrying.
The National Hurricane Center has predicted that by Monday afternoon, the now-Category 4 storm will be off the coast of this city. Yesterday, it ripped through Grenada as the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean in 14 years. It killed at least nine people and hurled hundreds of the island's landmark red zinc roofs through the air. It also damaged homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent.
As Ivan continued toward the United States, President Bush signed legislation allocating $2 billion more in disaster relief aid to Florida. He followed that signature with a morning visit yesterday to Fort Pierce on the Atlantic Coast, where he and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, loaded containers of water and bags of ice into waiting cars.
"Once again, Florida has faced the devastation of a hurricane," the president said after an afternoon visit to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "And once again, the people of Florida are showing their character and their strength and their deep concern for their neighbors."
With Hurricane Ivan taking an eerily similar path to Charley's, concern is palpable along U.S. 17, one of the few roads cutting north-south through the swampy center of the state. Hurricane Charley hit at the base of U.S. 17 in Punta Gorda and followed the roadway's path about 125 miles northeast to Orlando and Kissimmee. Those areas were hit again, albeit to a lesser extent, by the winds and rain of Frances.
At Orlando Sanford International Airport, a sign reads "Pardon our appearance as we work to recover from Hurricane Charley." Clever passengers have crossed off "Charley" and written "Frances," only to have that crossed off and replaced - in anticipation - by "Ivan."
In Fort Meade, south of Orlando on U.S. 17, Freddie Hamilton guarded the grounds yesterday at Vigiron, a fertilizer production company that has been left inoperable by the storms.
"Ivan, please stay away," he pleaded. "Don't come this way."
As lucky as Florida had been with hurricanes recently, the U.S. 17 corridor had been even luckier. Hamilton, 43, has lived all his life near Fort Meade. He had never experienced a hurricane. The last major hurricane to hit this part of Florida was Donna in 1960.
After riding out two in the past month, Hamilton is putting some credence in the old saying that bad events come in threes.
"That's the lottery number to play, 3-3-3," he said.
Farther south on U.S. 17 in Wauchula, Roy A. Brown was repairing the roof yesterday on one of the 30 units he rents to migrant workers. He said he is worried about the piles of debris that line the roads. There are 20-foot oak tree limbs and mangled metal piles that were mobile homes. He speculated aloud what would happen if a windy Ivan swept through town.
"This stuff will be rockets," he said. "All of it will be rockets."
Along U.S. 17 in Arcadia, the progress made after Charley was largely erased by Frances. The blue tarp roofs laid last week on mobile homes were blown away. As talk has turned to Ivan, Ricky Huckaby hasn't removed the plywood he put on his windows for Charley.
"My house has plywood all over it, and I'm not taking it down until January," he said.
At the end of the highway lined by devastation, the people of Punta Gorda are monitoring the forecasts. Despite the uncertainty in predicting a hurricane's path, there is a certain resignation among many that Ivan might come their way.
"I'm thinking we're going to get it," said Delta Corsini, 46, who owns two homes in the area. "We're all not miserable enough."
Suddenly there are a lot of amateur meteorologists around the city.
"It all depends on the high pressure over Illinois and Kentucky," said John H. Pickering, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "If it comes down like it's supposed to, it'll head straight for Cancun."
Humphrey, 37, was only making one prediction: that Ivan would be his last storm.
"I came here for the beaches and the babes," he said. "I didn't come here for hurricanes."