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A slice of relief

Amid the rebuilding, Northwest Florida residents look for a storm break wherever they can - including at the fair.

Published October 30, 2004

[Times photos: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Heather Coulter, 27, and husband David Coulter, 34, take in the sights at the Pensacola Interstate Fair on Thursday. David Coulter is a Pensacola firefighter, and has worked long hours since Hurricane Ivan struck the area six weeks ago.
Hank Newell, 8, Justin Redd, 11, Terry Redd, 5, and Grayson Fiveash, 8, all of Pensacola, share a ride at the Pensacola Interstate Fair. Regular fair patrons say the crowds have been smaller this year.

PENSACOLA - A cool, perfect autumn evening, and yet so many people walking the midway look weary.

They have endured six weeks of headaches and heartache. Houses torn apart, no phone or electricity, leaking ceilings, long waits for food, water and ice, longer waits for insurance adjusters and government checks.

After Hurricane Ivan battered this corner of Northwest Florida, they were left to clean up the mess.

Even now, they wake each day to mountains of debris, boarded windows, torn up roads and traffic jams. Their blue-tarped roofs stretch street after street, mile after mile, an endless sea of plastic.

Workers in Escambia County have hauled away 93,000 truck loads of sand and vegetative debris, and counting. FEMA has been installing 1,000 "blue roofs" a day. The Red Cross estimates about 70,000 homes in the county were affected by the storm; more than 5,000 were destroyed.

But at the 70th annual Pensacola Interstate Fair, which Ivan nearly canceled, the people can escape.

They can ride the Tilt-a-Whirl or have a carnie guess their weight or pay 50 cents to see the World's Smallest Woman. They can win stuffed animals by throwing darts at balloons. They can eat Italian sausages, cotton candy and funnel cakes. (There is healing power in funnel cakes.)

For a mere $8 admission, they can forget the world outside the gates, if only for a few hours. "It's just been great," said Sue Tompkins, 38, of Pensacola. "You ain't got to worry about debris."

She and her childhood friend, Chris Osborne, also 38, brought their two 7-year-old boys to blow off steam. Both women have spent the past month in a maze of insurance claims, home repairs, sweltering days and sleepless nights.

"Back there," Tompkins said, pointing beyond the gates, "just seems like a bad, bad dream. It's been hell."

It hasn't been much fun for the children, either, whether they are young enough for strollers or old enough to drive. Most of them spent the better part of a month out of school, cooped up at home, isolated from friends. Young and younger, they all could run free at the fair.

Josh Ward, 15, has spent more days than he cares to count under parents' orders, picking up shingles, trash and other debris from around his Pensacola home.

The fair "is better than having to clean up stuff," he said.

It also gave him time alone with Kayla, his blonde-haired, blue-eyed cheerleader girlfriend. He took her by the hand, and they climbed onto the Ferris wheel and disappeared into the night.

Reminders of Ivan linger, even here. There's the FEMA table set up by the expo hall, the food vendors selling "Ivan specials," even a few people selling T-shirts for $5 - "I survived Ivan the Terrible," they say.

But mostly it's just the smell of candy apples and corn dogs, the screams coming from rickety rides, the neon lights flashing. A slice of relief.

For that, 48-year-old Mike Habeard gives thanks. Ivan blew away his roof and dropped a tree on his home. He lost power for nearly four weeks. His beard grew thick, his eyes tired.

On a whim, he loaded up his 1997 Chevrolet van with children and grandchildren - nine of them in all - and made the 60-mile trip from Brewton, Ala., to the fair.

"It's like a one-night vacation," Habeard said. "We lost our whole place. It's been terrible. It feels good to get away."

Most of the regulars agree the crowds have seemed light this year. They say people are strapped for money or just too busy to make the trip.

But those who have come - to walk the midway and eat greasy food and ride stomach-churning rides - seem to find a brief respite from their troubles and the promise that life will return to normal again some day.

In the meantime, they must walk out those gates and drive back home, leaving the fair behind like a great Wurlitzer jukebox, glittering in the heart of destruction.

[Last modified October 30, 2004, 01:56:24]

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