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Hurricane Charley

Charley aid looks long term

State sales taxes - as much as $1-billion over five years - might help to rebuild hurricane-ravaged communities.

By ANITA KUMAR, JONI JAMES and JEFF HARRINGTON
Published August 20, 2004

PUNTA GORDA - Even as victims of Hurricane Charley struggled Thursday to meet daily needs, the state's long-term recovery efforts began to take shape.

Gov. Jeb Bush said he will support a plan to set aside a chunk of Florida's sales tax revenue to help rebuild the hurricane-damaged communities. The plan is similar to what was done after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but many details remain to be worked out.

Rebuilding the homes, businesses and lives devastated by Charley a week ago will take months, even years. But Bush said the level of federal and state aid will be enough to get the job done.

"A year from now when we celebrate the recovery from Hurricane Charley, I think these counties will be stronger and better off," Bush said during a trip to Tampa to meet with insurance and agriculture leaders.

As relief efforts moved ahead, the scope of Charley's destruction continued to emerge:

Three deaths were reported, bringing the total in Florida to 23. A 55-year-old man in Highlands County and a 74-year-old man in Lee County died from heat-related stress on the heart and a 37-year-old man died after falling 60 feet from a tree he had been cutting in Orange County.

More than 10,000 homes were destroyed and 16,000 sustained major damage, meaning they're uninhabitable without major repairs, according to preliminary figures from the American Red Cross. Nearly 29,000 homes had minor damage and can be lived in during repairs.

About 63 percent of the state's ranches - stocked with about 1.2-million head of beef cattle - were significantly damaged. Cattle ranches covering about 9-million acres saw damage, mostly to fences and farm facilities.

Citrus crop damage was estimated at $150-million, which will hit growers particularly hard after several years of low citrus prices.

"It's looking pretty bad," said Marty McKenna, a Hardee County citrus grower who owns 160 acres. "We're in completely uncharted waters. I don't think a lot of the smaller growers will bounce back. We're all shell-shocked."

As the days wear on, the bills keep coming.

But aid is pouring in.

The Florida Department of Community Affairs sent $4.5-million in emergency block grants for small cities and $100,000 to aid farmworkers. The state Department of Elder Affairs announced $5-million in emergency aid.

And in just 24 hours, more than $1.5-million has been committed to the Hurricane Charley Relief Effort, expected to help build homes and businesses for years.

Bush and state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher were wary Thursday of the insurance industry's early estimate of $7.4-billion in insured damages.

The state will have to tap its hurricane catastrophe fund to reimburse insurers for damages exceeding $4.5-billion. But the fund, nearly untouched since its creation after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, has nearly $6-billion in cash on hand for just this purpose.

Gallagher said he didn't see a need for hikes to insurance premiums.

The biggest long-term relief - as much as $1-billion over five years - likely would come from a plan to pump some of the state's sales tax into the damaged counties.

The rebuilding effort, financed by money from the federal government and insurance payments, will increase the state's sales tax revenue as residents and businesses buy building supplies and durable goods such as appliances and automobiles.

Under a plan hatched by state Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, most, if not all, of that revenue over the next five years would go to a special account. That money could only be spent on rebuilding efforts, such as school construction, local government bailouts or aid to homeowners struggling to meet insurance deductibles.

But Bush and other leaders said the state can't repeat the problems associated with a similar $600-million fund established after Hurricane Andrew, when millions of dollars were directed to pet projects miles from the hurricane's impact while 500 homeowners in South Dade still didn't have the means to rebuild.

Even so, such a plan could be more complicated to administer after Hurricane Charley, which damaged dozens of Florida communities, than it was after Hurricane Andrew, which was concentrated in South Miami-Dade County.

"On one hand, almost every story is heart-rending because you know that they all have suffered," said Bob Bradley, who worked as budget director for the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in the years after Hurricane Andrew. "On the other hand, there is only so much money to go around and you have to determine how much, fairly, they can contribute from their own reserves before the state chips in."

Bush's office also said he will extend by 60 days the state's deadlines for notifying property owners in the affected counties of proposed property taxes. The deadline change, requested by the state's property appraisers, will give homeowners more time to challenge their so-called TRIM notices.

But Bush won't be able to address another concern raised by the appraisers: That state law provides no mechanism for tax bills to be reduced to reflect major property losses from a natural disaster part-way through a tax year.

Such a change would require legislative action, but it's not unprecedented. In 1998, two months after tornadoes damaged an estimated 4,755 homes in central and south Florida, lawmakers approved a stopgap measure that allowed tax abatement for those property owners.

Such a measure could easily be addressed in November's organizational legislative session if deemed necessary, said Jill Bratina, Bush's communications director.

In other developments:

Bush declared an "elections emergency" in 10 counties and gave Secretary of State Glenda Hood authority to limit early voting in some areas. Early voting was supposed to begin Aug. 16.

State officials said more than 335,000 customers remained without power Thursday, many of them in the Orlando area. About 2,000 people remained in 23 shelters in 12 counties.

About 100 animal disaster specialists are trying to find homes for hundreds of dogs and cats found since Charley hit, as well as lions, goats, cows, horses, llamas and cobras.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry will visit disaster areas this afternoon.

Times staff writers William R. Levesque and Will Van Sant, researcher Kitty Bennett and the Associated Press contributed to this report. [Last modified August 20, 2004, 01:46:59]


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