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Emergency workers weary, struggling in primitive conditions

Published Aug. 28, 2005

After Hurricane Charley struck, Chris Nicholls drove a supply truck back and forth along U.S. 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia to aid storm victims.

When Hurricane Frances doused the state, Nicholls worked from his church in Brooksville, commanding Salvation Army relief efforts for Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Now, after Hurricane Ivan, he is coordinating meal service here for thousands. Nicholls is part of an army of workers _ nearly 8,000 throughout the Panhandle _ who form the backbone of Florida's unprecedented effort to provide relief for the victims of back-to-back hurricanes.

It hasn't been easy.

After this many disasters, finding and keeping volunteers is a challenge.

"We get a lot of folks from all over at the beginning," Nicholls said. "But after about a week folks start to forget about it."

And fatigue is setting in. "We're battle-worn," he said.

Conditions are primitive. Electricity is limited, running water is rare and damaged roads and traffic tangles add to the stress.

"We're in the middle of the impact area. So what makes it through has been very minimal in the beginning," Nicholls said. "A lot of the counties around us have _ I don't want to say stolen _ redirected our goods."

And Ivan caused more severe and widespread damage, Nicholls said.

"When that thing came on shore, it had the winds of Charley, the rains of Frances," he said. "The area is just so much larger _ of devastation not just power outages."

Even with 160 trucks ready with supplies before Ivan made landfall, the government's relief effort hit some snags. Fallen street signs and dark traffic lights were a hindrance, said Alan Harris of the state emergency response team.

A staging area at the airport turned out to be a poor location because supply trucks had to drive across soft sand, he said.

But some problems quickly eased thanks to lessons learned from Charley and Frances.

Trucks bringing supplies to distribution sites got police escorts. Detours around the collapsed Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay were quickly mapped out. And storm victims seemed to get more savvy too, Harris said, stopping at traffic lights that don't work instead of barreling through.

By Tuesday, 10 distribution sites operated in Escambia County, providing ice, food and water.

The government handed out ready-to-eat meals, while charities served hot food, an important strategy, said Greg Strader of the Red Cross. "The closer we can get the public to perceiving that normalcy has returned, that's the best thing that can be done for their emotional and psychological well-being," he said.

The Red Cross has served more than 178,000 meals a day. The Salvation Army estimates it's serving 45,000 to 50,000 meals a day.

Much of the relief work is being done by volunteers like Eugene Hale, a Miami truck driver. Hale, 61, lost his house 12 years ago to Hurricane Andrew. "I had to take care of my own insurance, trying to rebuild," he said. "Now I feel like I'm making up for what somebody did for my family."

Hale's trucking company, U.S. Express Enterprises, sent him to all three hurricanes in Florida to deliver water. While in Punta Gorda, Lakeland, and now Pensacola, Hale has stuck around, handing out water to victims and sleeping in his rig.

"I know how these people feel," he said.

One of them is Donald Hudson, whose mobile home was damaged by a fallen tree. He went to the Salvation Army seeking a place to stay and stuck around to volunteer.

"I just feel like it was my duty to put some smiles on people's faces and take the agony out of myself," said Hudson, 50. "I'm not alone here."