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After 3 Hurricanes, Weather Takes on New Meaning for One County

Water surrounds a home and farm buildings in Fort Pierce, Fla., in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne. Millions of Floridians remain without power.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Water surrounds a home and farm buildings in Fort Pierce, Fla., in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne. Millions of Floridians remain without power.

By THOMAS CRAMPTON

Published: September 28, 2004

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BARTOW, Fla., Sept. 27 - By the time a county is hit for the third time in about six weeks by a major hurricane, residents there begin to develop a few new skills.

"I can tell you that in Polk County we've learned about some things we never imagined before," Mike Herr, the county manager, said on Monday. "They don't like it, but you would be amazed at how the people of this county have adapted to a new way of life."

Residents of this rural county, which sits about halfway down Florida's peninsula and is roughly equidistant between the state's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, have adopted new ways of living after Hurricanes Charley, Frances and - last weekend - Jeanne ripped through it. The county was largely spared the effects of a fourth hurricane, Ivan.

Hurricane Jeanne, which was blamed for six deaths in Florida, was reduced to a tropical depression with winds of 35 m.p.h. by late Monday, but not before it had brought torrential rains across northern Florida and Georgia, and taught businessmen like Sean Broecker a thing or two about running a store in the dark.

Mr. Broecker, 38, manager of XYZ Liquors on Highway 17 in Bartow, illuminated the store with an old-style oil lamp and said he had learned that hurricane victims tended to increase liquor purchases and that out-of-state power company repairmen bought even more.

"The biggest purchase was the Georgia Power people who came in after Charley and spent more than $250 on all kinds of stuff before they even got our power back on," he said. "They kept coming back after just about every hurricane, and I can't say I blame them."

Around the corner at Ace Hardware, Bill Cloud, who is responsible for sales and repair of chainsaws, generators and camping lights, said his customers had become savvy about dangerous hardware.

"After Charley, I had people putting chains backward on their saws and filling them up with pure gas," Mr. Cloud said. "Now we discuss carburetors, and I teach them how to do repairs."

Mr. Cloud and public health officials have warned people not to place carbon monoxide-producing camping stoves and generators indoors.

Their advice may have worked. While there were three deaths and half a dozen poisonings related to carbon monoxide after Hurricane Charley hit the state on Aug. 13, there were no such incidents after Frances or Jeanne.

"You can really see a difference in the way the people of Polk react to our advice and requests for help," Daniel O. Haight, director of the county public health department, said. "The speed of response is so fast now that it seems everyone waits to hear our public service announcements."

Knowledge built up from three hurricanes has also been applied to the workings of government.

After Hurricane Charley, for example, the county health department bought two satellite telephones, speeded deployment of mobile telephones that can handle e-mail and streamlined damage reporting.

"People from all government departments now know how to report that water, food or shelter is needed in a particular area," Mr. Haight said. "It used to be that inspectors from each department would only pay attention to their own one issue."

One small-town mayor has found his job - an unpaid post - transformed by the hurricane season.

"I have acquired a little too much pungent first-hand knowledge of what happens when sewers don't work," said John Shamp, mayor of Eagle Lake, population 2,500. "Nobody has telephones either, so I also drive around like a town crier. Beats sitting in meetings all day."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has had to contend with four hurricanes this season, joked Monday that the experience had been an eye-opener as he studied weather maps for signs of tropical storms in the Atlantic.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I be looking at weather patterns off the western African coast," Mr. Bush said.

For law enforcement officials, the response to each hurricane has been relatively easier when it comes to managing traffic without benefit of traffic lights.

"After each hurricane, I have seen people acting more and more responsibly when they come to intersections without traffic lights," Chris Velasquez, a captain in the Lake Wales Police Department, said. "It sounds bad, but you could call it a crash course in reminding people about basic driver's education."

In the delicatessen at the Wal-Mart in Bartow, Morgan Droz said he never got complaints from customers wanting a different kind of chicken meat.

"People literally now ask me for a pound of whatever I am cooking," Mr. Droz said. "When it comes to restaurants, people here now choose by the one with lights, not by the menu."

The humid heat makes it tough to adjust for life without electricity.

"Sitting in the dark wouldn't be that bad if the air-conditioning would work," said Shena Crockett, a high school senior who has missed two weeks of school because of the hurricanes. "Instead of movies on a Saturday, we just sit with candles until we go to sleep."

For Doy Scott, a diesel mechanic, sleeping with the windows open has made sleep extremely tough. "You forget how loud the frogs and crickets are in Florida," Mr. Scott said. "In my neighborhood, the frogs are even louder than the generators."

The novelty of life without electricity was interesting for about one day, he said. "I must say the repeated hurricanes have changed my attitude to people," Mr. Scott said. "I normally would never stop and talk about to someone about the weather."

Terry Aguayo contributed reporting from Miami for this article, and Abby Goodnough from Rockledge.


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