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Hurricane Charley

Unlike Andrew, aid's right on Charley's heels

Published August 17, 2004


$10-MILLION for travel trailers.

$10-MILLION for mobile homes.

15 damage assessment teams.

200 housing inspectors, with 250 more on the way.

100 community field teams going door to door to show victims how to get help.

Fielded more than 26,000 requests for help.

A disaster field office opens today in Orlando for base for federal and state agencies involved in recovery effort. FEMA's toll-free line to request assistance is 1-800-621-3362.

Three days after Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992, Dade County's emergency operations director made a plea on national television.

"Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?" asked an exasperated Kate Hale.

Three days after Hurricane Charley devastated Charlotte County, its emergency operations director offered a different critique of the state and federal response.

"I'm not ready to start ripping FEMA," Wayne Sallade said Monday, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "They've been here. They've been good partners. If the need arises to tell it like it is, I will."

While there are similarities between Andrew and Charley in their devastating impact, early signs indicate a major difference: The response by the federal and state governments is quicker and better this time.

Gov. Jeb Bush sought federal help Friday while Charley was still in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush approved the aid about an hour after the hurricane made landfall.

By Monday afternoon, the cavalry seemed to be in place.

There were a few trouble spots in the stifling heat. Orlando officials want more help, and it wasn't clear if water and ice were getting to everyone who needed it most. But rescue teams, insurance adjusters and National Guard troops are moving quickly into the hardest-hit counties.

The governor will return to Central Florida today, and state agencies have established mobile units to help with everything from child care to unemployment compensation.

"You need to have a quick response in beginning," Gov. Bush said Monday.

FEMA received more than 26,000 applications for federal aid by Monday night. At the same point after Andrew, only a fraction of that number had been received.

In 1992, people had to stand in long lines and apply in person. Now FEMA allows people to apply by phone.

Cargo planes were shuttling FEMA supplies from a Georgia Air Force base to a staging area in Lakeland, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had shipped 11 truckloads of water and 14 truckloads of ice. The first assistance checks to victims were to be shipped Monday night.

The federal agency is also the focus of some complaints. Some Charlotte County residents said they couldn't call FEMA's toll-free number because their phones had been knocked out by the storm.

Tammy Griffin, 39, said she could not get FEMA on the phone.

"I was on hold, on a cell phone, for an hour and a half," she said, after trying to use a toll-free number and then talking to a federal official in person. "They told me to try again in a few days. This is all they give you, a piece of paper."

Mary Koch, 55, wanted answers from FEMA but she couldn't find anyone to help her in Punta Gorda. Her $58,000 home off U.S. 17 was damaged. She wanted to know who would cover the $2,000 she put on a credit card for a generator.

"There's a lot of people here to help, but nobody knows where to go to get it because communications are down," she said. "Even the officials don't know."

Despite some complaints, federal and state officials say there is better coordination than there was after Andrew.

In 1992, the anger in Miami could be seen in a spray-painted sign that greeted the president: "Help us President Bush. Want reelection? Send more help+

materials. We need them. Thank you!"

The president was not solely at fault for the post-Andrew difficulties. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles shared some of the blame. The Democratic governor did not formally request federal assistance until three days after Andrew hit. He later said he incorrectly assumed that FEMA's response would be sufficient to trigger help from all federal agencies.

The federal response to Andrew was poorly planned and chaotic. FEMA had spent years preparing for a Cold War nuclear apocalypse, but it seemed unprepared for Mother Nature.

"WE NEED HELP," a front-page Miami Herald headline screamed four days after Andrew hit.

The effort was tangled up in red tape. Some FEMA officials wanted to move truckloads of supplies to Florida ahead of time so it would be closer to victims. But FEMA's lawyers said the agency could not move supplies until after an official disaster declaration. Similar problems hobbled the federal removal of storm debris and delayed federal troops from being deployed to Dade County, snarling the ability of states to help each other.

When Andrew hit, there was no standardized way for states to share resources.

"It ended up being a midnight phone call between governors," said Amy Hughes, a policy analyst for the National Emergency Management Association, which represents state emergency response agencies. "A lot of legal things had to be done in the middle of the night."

After Andrew, 48 states and Congress approved an agreement making it easier for the states to offer mutual aid. That agreement, which was first sought by Chiles, made it possible for three emergency management specialists from Kentucky to arrive at the Tallahassee command center last week before Charley hit.

The agreement also made it easier for Alabama, Texas, Mississippi and Georgia to quickly send National Guard helicopters to Florida after the hurricane cut through Florida's midsection.

After Andrew, FEMA director James Lee Witt overhauled the bureaucracy and improved communications with the states. Witt established centers around the country to store water and disaster supplies, and he made agreements with other federal agencies so supplies and personnel could be sent before a storm.

The early signs indicate those reforms have helped for Hurricane Charley.

Guy Daines, the former Pinellas County director of emergency services, said he was impressed by the quick deployment of the National Guard and prepositioning of supplies for Hurricane Charley.

"It amazed me how they got over 4,000 National Guard troops in there that quick," Daines said. "Rather than sit there and react, they are trying to get a jump-start on everything."

Another factor in the rapid federal response: election-year politics.

With Florida again playing a pivotal role in the presidential election, the Bush administration in Washington has moved quickly to make sure Floridians get what they need. The president visited Punta Gorda on Sunday and said: "The government's job is to help people help rebuild their lives, and that's what's happening."

Asked about comparisons with Andrew, Bush said, "That was then, this is now." He said the government "is set up to respond very quickly, and we are."

Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who was state insurance commissioner in 1992 and still oversees insurance regulation, said that is the single biggest difference between then and now.

"Help was on the way before the storm ever hit," he said.

Gallagher was in Port Charlotte on Monday as his office set up a mobile headquarters to begin processing insurance claims. The mobile van, with the Florida seal and the words "Department of Financial Services," has a satellite link to the Internet. Alongside is a Citizens Property Insurance van, processing more claims and in some cases handing out checks.

His office also is moving to suspend the need for policyholders to pay the premiums on their policies for the next 60 days.

After Andrew, Gallagher recalled, insurance adjusters could not get to the hardest-hit areas without their car tires being punctured by roofing nails.

"It was a couple of weeks before we had claims adjusters down there," Gallagher said, "and it was three weeks before the military was called in. This time, everything happened before the storm hit."

* * *

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 12:50:10]

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