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Domestic violence spikes after storms

Domestic violence victims learn to watch for triggers that send their partners into a battering rage _ kids' behavior, disputed tasks at home _ and avoid them if they can.

But when a hurricane strikes and home has a hole in the roof and no electricity and school is canceled indefinitely, there's little a victim can do.

"The phone is ringing and people are flooding in," said Kay Tavorach, director of the Center for Abuse and Rape Emergencies in Punta Gorda, where Hurricane Charley struck Aug. 13.

"Domestic violence is both emotional abuse and physical abuse, and there's plenty of both in Charlotte County right now," Tavorach said.

Four hurricanes in six weeks have led to a spike in calls to domestic violence shelters, and victims' advocates fear more are on the way as recovery efforts, spread thin across the state, plod on.

The jump has been so great that Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, made a plea Tuesday for relief workers to be on the lookout for signs of domestic violence.

Volunteers, such as those with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, will be given domestic violence materials to distribute and will refer victims to shelters, Bush said.

"Nerves are frayed and frustration runs high," the governor said. The best way to help families teetering on the edge of violence is to restore utilities and reopen schools to create some sense of normalcy, Bush said.

"First and foremost is to get the power back on. There's nothing like taking a hot shower or taking your kids to school," Bush said.

More than 36,000 homes and businesses in the Florida Panhandle were still without electricity Tuesday from Hurricane Ivan, which hit Sept. 16. More than 1.6-million Floridians are without power from Hurricane Jeanne this weekend.

After Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, domestic violence complaints in Dade County shot up 50 percent and divorce rates by 30 percent.

Researchers at Florida International University found that many of the couples who split after the storm did so because of money _ not too little, but too much. Couples whose marriages already were faltering couldn't agree how to spend the insurance check and found it easier to split than fix the marriage.

It took two years for domestic violence levels in Dade County to return to normal, victim advocates said.

Bush said he plans to use federal relief money to turn some domestic violence centers into special-needs storm shelters so victims and their children won't have to relocate during a storm.

"Sometimes it is unsafe for victims to go to public shelters in case the abuser shows up," said Tiffany Carr, executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Regular shelters sometimes set aside a room for domestic violence victims and their counselors, but it's rare, Carr said.