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Tired islanders face damage

The weariness showed on Charles Latham's face Tuesday afternoon. Sweat trickled down his sagging eyelids and sunburned cheeks.

"Hell, I can't wait to get back to work so I can rest," the 60-year-old hardware salesman said. But first he had a roof to patch. Hurricane Frances had left it bare and soggy. Hurricane Jeanne ripped it open again, like pulling a scab off a wound.

During three dreadful weeks, both hurricanes made landfall at this small sliver of land sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. But even here, at ground zero, the difference between bad luck and terrible luck was as narrow as 15 feet of blacktop.

"We were fortunate. There's always someone worse off," Latham said, pointing across the street toward his neighbor's house. There, the roof had blown away and the ceilings collapsed. The residents, in their 80s, had to leave.

"It's a total loss," Latham said.

Residents and business owners discovered lots of total losses Tuesday as they began to trickle back onto barrier islands, from Jensen Beach to Fort Pierce to Vero Beach.

Jeanne, the fourth hurricane to hit Florida in six weeks, killed at least six people. More than 5,300 people are staying in shelters, nearly 1.3-million homes and businesses in 48 counties are without power, and roughly two dozen school districts remain closed. About 3,800 National Guard troops are deployed, and state officials estimate insured losses from the four hurricanes at $18-billion.

Along the barrier islands where Jeanne came ashore with 120 mph winds over the weekend, some were relieved the damage wasn't as bad as expected.

It was hard to tell the work of Frances from the work of Jeanne, but this much was clear: The storms seemed to spare one house and obliterate another, to skip over this business and destroy that one.

Mulligan's Neighborhood Grill and Raw Bar, which sits directly on Vero Beach, suffered only minor roof and water damage. Owner George Hart planned to reopen today. "Everything's okay," he said. "We're going to be all right."

But at the Holiday Inn Oceanside next door, the hurricanes blew out windows, flooded rooms and tore away chunks of the roof. Of 104 rooms, nearly 70 were uninhabitable. Employees said the hotel likely will remain closed for four weeks. "This is called the Debris Inn now," said desk manager Michelle Bilotti. "It's depressing. Everybody was just hanging on by a string. (And) just when you think everything is going to be okay, here we go again."

Several hotels along the beaches were reduced to shells, the hurricanes taking walls and windows and roofs.

That's what happened at the Courtyard by Marriott near Jensen Beach, where tables and chairs teetered on the ledges of the top-floor restaurant. The walls and windows had peeled away.

Up and down Highway A1A, the sand lay so thick in places that it completely covered the road beneath it. Parking lots had turned into beaches or ponds, depending on their elevation. Entire sections of road had washed away, claimed by the pounding water.

In neighborhoods all along the islands, piles of debris and moldy furniture sat along curbs, and more piles certainly will follow. The rows of houses and condos, with their blue-tarped roofs, fallen trees and debris-strewn lawns, looked wind-beaten and tired.

So did the people.

"If we have another one, I think I'm going to leave," said Ruth Clendenin, 74, as she cleaned up outside her Atlantic Corner Food Mart on Hutchinson Island. "It's just more than people can handle."

Mimi McAlley is tired, too.

She has lived in her manufactured home on Loggerhead Place in Fort Pierce, across the street from the beach, for 31 years. Frances damaged her roof, drenched her furniture and filled the place with mold. She had the house stripped on the inside.

Then Jeanne ripped off the tarp and dumped more water through the bare roof, which leaks like a sieve. Her place is barren _ no carpet, no sheetrock, no appliances, no furniture, no ceilings.

But the gray-haired widow, like so many others, plans to stay and begin again.

"I love my house," McAlley said Tuesday. "I'm optimistic, even at 86. I don't know whether I'll (die) before I can rebuild it or whether I'll be able to enjoy it."

She's determined to make it the latter. "I'm going to try like hell," she said.

Then she went back to cleaning.