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Hurricane Charley

Near miss has area looking to future

By JEAN HELLER and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published August 17, 2004

Home Safety Solutions in Palm Harbor normally gets about five calls a day from people inquiring about hurricane shutters and window shields. On Monday, calls and visits numbered 200.

"I've been doing this 18 years. I've never seen anything like this," said Russ Bohen, the company's president. "(People) all of a sudden ... realize how vulnerable they really are."

At Solar Security Films Inc. in Tampa, more than 500 calls came in since Saturday, said president John Centeno.

"We're slammed," Centeno said. "My answering service is about to cut me off."

After living for 24 hours with Charley's bull's-eye on their backs, after seeing the devastation Charley left behind from Lee to Orange counties, after hearing forecasters discuss the potential for more storms, many Tampa Bay area residents want to be better prepared.

Up and down the Gulf Coast, three days after Charley made landfall, Lowe's and Home Depot stores reported that people were still buying plywood as fast as it could be unloaded from delivery trucks.

"I've been here for 36 years, and I'm impressed that people are taking this so seriously," said Monica Dear, who works at a Home Depot in Port Richey. "People are buying plywood. They're asking for candles and batteries. It's as if the storm is still coming, not like it's already passed."

Generators also are in great demand, but they are in short supply. At Dear's store and at another in Crystal River, all available generators were shipped to areas clobbered by the storm where power restoration could be weeks away.

The psychology of the dodged bullet is strong, but not strong enough to draw people away from homes on the water. At least not so far.

Sharon Simms, a Re/Max broker who specializes in pricey St. Petersburg waterfront property, had an appointment to show a house Friday, the day Charley was forecast to make landfall at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The appointment was canceled.

"But the buyer called on Sunday to reschedule," Simms said Monday. "They're still interested in living on the water, and I haven't had any calls or contacts from people who want to put waterfront properties on the market and get out.

"When you live in a place where the target area for a hurricane extends well back from the beach, I don't expect that attitude to change," Simms said.

But the attitude isn't shared by mobile home residents, who took Charley's destruction personally.

At Holiday Mobile Home Park on Interbay Boulevard in Tampa, Patricia Hapsic was devastated by pictures of the destruction.

"That could have been us," said Hapsic, 50. "I would definitely move into a house today if I could."

Neighbor Christine Lisandrillo agreed.

"You have to live where you can afford to live," she said. "You take your chances in a mobile home."

Others wanted to improve their chances.

At Rolladen shutters in St. Petersburg, manager Brian Bowermaster said he hadn't been so busy since the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"People have been used to seeing the storms come up the gulf and then make that left turn before they got here," Bowermaster said. "This time, it turned right. It was bigger and meaner and closer to home. It made an impression."

But how long will the impression last?

"We hope forever, but we're realistic," said Len Ciecieznski, spokesman for Pinellas County Emergency Management. "What was different this time is people understand all that destruction could have been us. It doesn't matter if we dodged a bullet. Mother Nature has a whole machine gun aimed for us. This will happen again."

Ciecieznski was in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. The lessons stuck there, he said, but not forever.

"People were wary the rest of that hurricane season and the next," he said. "But then people die, and new people come in and memories fade."

Psychologists think it's fine for people to respond after Charley and prepare for the next storm - as long as they don't get obsessive.

"We saw the same thing after 9/11, with people buying emergency kits and stocking up on canned goods and water," said Brenda Wiens, co-director of the National Rural Behavioral Health Center at the University of Florida. "It's good to be prepared, but over time it will drop off. It's natural."

There is a potential downside, Wiens said.

"If people spend so much time worrying that it causes anxiety and interferes with their functioning, that's not healthy. But buying plywood is fine, even if it won't protect a whole house. It makes people feel as if they're doing something."

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 00:05:09]

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