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Costly challenges

Before Hurricane Jeanne plowed into Florida this morning, the state already had been calculating the cost of three other deadly hurricanes.

Now there are four in a cycle of weather-related death and destruction never before seen in Florida. The long, slow rebuilding will put enormous strains on the state, counties and cities and will prompt a review of everything from the electrical grid to building codes.

Gov. Jeb Bush said the lessons learned from each hurricane will make the state better able to cope with the challenges.

"I can assure you that, a week from now, Florida's going to be a better place than it is today," Bush said, "and I can assure you a month from now, it's going to be even better."

That's hard to imagine standing on the Gulf of Mexico in Pensacola, where mansions overlooking the Gulf of Mexico look as if they were targeted by a highly selective missile strike.

But the damage was caused by Ivan's 130-mph winds slicing through homes built under an older, less stringent building code.

Side by side, devastation and survival now co-exist. Some houses built before the building code revisions prompted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 were blown off their foundations. Others built after the new building code was in place are still standing.

"It's unbelievable," said Donald Mayo, Escambia County's chief building official. "I'd say it was a difference of 10 to 1."

When the Legislature adopted a stricter building code after Andrew, lawmakers in the Panhandle won an exemption by arguing that the region was less hurricane-prone than South Florida. The tougher standards, which include withstanding 120 mile-per-hour winds, extend only 1 mile from the Gulf and do not apply to older homes.

Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, said the stark contrast between pre-Andrew and post-Andrew housing shows a need to reconsider the Panhandle exemption.

"You can lose everything, every picture off the wall, or you can build to a higher standard and survive," Murzin said.

Building standards are one of many issues Bush and state legislators will face after an unprecedented four hurricanes in six weeks.

The challenges include a need for more affordable housing and beach renourishment; reviving Florida's tourism and agriculture industries; rebuilding roads, bridges, parks, schools and courthouses; providing tax relief to owners of damaged homes and businesses; helping people cope with insurance deductibles they can't afford; and perhaps re-evaluating a culture that prizes houses and condos that hug the shoreline.

The state's response to Andrew was the prototype for reacting to a devastating storm. It included a tougher building code, new measures to keep homeowners insurance available and a method to enable damaged counties to keep some tax money generated by the rebuilding boom.

But damage from Andrew was limited to South Florida. This year's hurricanes have affected every part of the state, and some of the responses to Andrew may not work this time.

Bush estimated the state's share of the recovery costs at $1-billion, but that was well before Jeanne slammed the east coast overnight. The total price tag and all of the policy questions are not yet clear.

"I have to understand, as a legislator, where the safety net gaps are, and fill them. There are some obvious holes," said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, whose district in Osceola County was slammed by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

A special legislative session is likely in December. Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who will take over as House speaker in November, has placed a veteran Pinellas County lawmaker at the forefront of hurricane policy. A new hurricane workgroup is headed by Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, who will be entering her fourth and last term. Waters has an insurance background and chairs a House budget subcommittee dealing with transportation and economic development.

Working with nine House staffers, Waters said she has begun gathering information. She said the state should have enough money to meet the financial demands from four hurricanes with a $1-billion emergency account and an anticipated $890-million in increased tax collections this year.

Bush has said he expects a drop in sales tax collections for August and a spike in unemployment because of the hurricanes. But he said the state has enough money to pay its share of the post-hurricane bills. He said state tax collections were more than $500-million above projections in recent months, providing a cushion.

"The demands are growing in a fast growing state, but so is the revenue source to meet it," Bush said.

Still, Bush wants the Federal Emergency Management Agency to increase its share of the cleanup costs from 75 to 90 percent. So do Florida's two U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, who made the case in a letter to President Bush.

In Washington last week, Gov. Bush met with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. He also visited House Appropriations Committee chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, and other House members from Florida.

Bush said he encouraged state and federal cooperation to help small businesses, transportation and agriculture, as well as renourishment of eroded beaches.

"We need to jump start our visitors' industry, and an important component of that is beach renourishment," Bush said.

Almost everything will come down to money.

The Escambia County administrator, George Touart, said he's counting on FEMA money to help restore Pensacola Beach, where sand dunes disappeared during the storm. White sand now covers the inland sections of the island.

"We just spent $20-million on Pensacola Beach erosion _ and luckily I still have all the receipts to prove it," Touart said. "That's going to make it a lot easier for us to get the money reimbursed."

Counties are already getting in line. They hope the state will pay a greater share of cleanup costs than it did during the last round of disasters, including tornadoes and wildfires in the late 1990s.

A major problem in many storm-ravaged counties: FEMA won't reimburse governments to remove debris from private roads, which exist in many mobile home parks and gated subdivisions.

"It's still early," said Eric Poole, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties.

After Andrew, legislators created a special recovery fund supported by increased sales tax collections in South Florida.

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

But the post-Andrew account evolved into a grab bag that paid for projects that had no connection to the hurricane, like lifeguard stands on Miami Beach. And creating such an account now would be more complicated because of the large number of counties affected by the hurricanes.

Bush initially favored the creation of a separate hurricane account after Charley. But last week, after two more hurricanes and a fourth one on the way, he sounded more skeptical.

"All I will want from the Legislature is a clean process so that this doesn't just become another pot to rush to to try to get something that's not storm-related," Bush said. "And I think they'll comply."

Throughout the past six weeks, Bush has repeatedly pleaded for patience from Floridians. After the last storm leaves, they may be asked for more patience, as the legislative wheels slowly grind forward.

Marilyn Hess owns the Crowne Plaza-Pensacola Grande Hotel, as well as four other hotels on Escambia County's beaches. She said she's not sure how much damage her properties sustained, but said she's planning on rebuilding as soon as possible.

"All the new construction will really revitalize the economy," said Hess, a Pensacola native. "And the new buildings will be much stronger. I know that we'll come out of this okay. It's just going to take a while."

Times staff writers Wes Allison and Joni James contributed to this report.

HOUSES: Homeowners struggling to meet insurance deductibles are turning to the state for help. Some lost valuables and have been hit with the "double deductible," which means they must pay out-of-pocket expenses twice.

ROADS: The damage to Florida's roads, bridges, schools and other assets is still being assessed, and the news gets worse every day. The Legislature could face huge bills for repairs not covered by the federal government.

BEACHES: Escambia County is counting on federal money to restore Pensacola Beach, where Ivan literally transported sand dunes inland, sprinkling billions of white sand particles across the interior of Santa Rosa Island.

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