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Time to regroup, again

For millions of Floridians, the past weeks have been a stupefying blur, a regime of stocking up, boarding up and cleaning up _ this time, from Hurricane Jeanne. The Tampa Bay area fared pretty well, despite Jeanne's westward wiggle. While a half-million people were left without power and thousands were forced into shelters, Jeanne's forward speed and the public's preparedness limited damage. Hurricane season still isn't over, but Floridians are getting better at dealing with these deadly catastrophes.

Jeanne ripped across Florida's midsection Sunday, killing at least six before moving into Georgia. President Bush declared a disaster across one-third of Florida, where four hurricanes have hit this year, creating what the Federal Emergency Management Agency says is the largest relief effort in its history.

Many east coast communities near where Jeanne came ashore with 120 mph winds were still struggling to recover from the hammering by Hurricane Frances three weeks ago. Jeanne moved across the state's interior Sunday, clipping northeast Hillsborough County before moving up the coast, where it drove residents of low-lying areas away and battered St. Petersburg, Clearwater and New Port Richey with 74 mph winds.

Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne have killed at least 80 in Florida, destroyed thousands of homes and left a multibillion-dollar rebuilding job. As of early Monday, 2.6-million were without power. Many have been hit more than once and will need help for days or weeks to come.

In some respects, weathering the earlier storms left Floridians better prepared for Jeanne. The tree damage caused by Frances swept away many of the limbs that might have otherwise downed power lines this time around. Communities throughout the bay area in recent weeks seemed to put a high priority on cleaning streets and stormwater drains, maintenance essential for preventing street flooding. Homeowners have also been trimming trees and securing garbage cans and lawn furniture, keeping debris from becoming flying missiles.

No amount of practice can prevent some human error in responding to dangerous and unpredictable storms. The inaccurate forecasts of Jeanne's path led Pinellas officials to wait until 11 p.m. Saturday to order evacuations of mobile home residents, putting people unduly at risk. Residents should have some idea before going to bed whether there is a chance conditions might change so seriously overnight. The city of Tampa improved its public notification of evacuations and emergency procedures, and city crews moved more quickly this time to secure downed traffic lights and trees. Closing schools helped keep traffic off the roads Monday, making repairs easier to manage. There is also _ for the first time in a while _ not another tropical system to worry about in the Atlantic.

Officials said Monday it might take some time to restore power to all homes. Utility crews were already stretched thin, with many working in the Panhandle to restore service in the wake of Hurricane Ivan. Officials also worried about flooding this week in riverfront neighborhoods. But while damage to the region was broad, it was not severe. It's time to be thankful _ and to regroup. The coming weeks will be easier if we use common sense and help whoever needs a hand.

Palm trees sway in Tropical Storm Jeanne's winds in a Town 'N Country neighborhood Sunday afternoon. While a half-million people in the Tampa Bay area were left without power, Jeanne's forward speed and the public's preparedness limited damage. Since utility companies are already stretched thin working to restore service after Hurricane Ivan, officials said Monday it might take some time to restore power to all homes.

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