FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Traffic from returning evacuees has subsided, long lines for gas have shortened and billions of dollars in federal aid will soon flow for afflicted Florida residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Frances.
But as President Bush toured the damage along Florida’s Atlantic coast on Wednesday, many residents said it will take months to ease the anxieties of rebuilding their homes and their lives.
“Look at this,” said Gloria Serrano, who toured her mother-in-law’s damaged West Palm Beach mobile home. “There’s no water, there’s no electricity, there’s sewage on the ground and there are trees on my mother-in-law’s roof. I’m very worried.”
Bush signed a bill early Wednesday allocating $2 billion in emergency money for areas reeling from two hurricanes, and he planned to ask for still more aid soon, said spokesman Scott McClellan.
After landing in West Palm Beach, Bush flew by helicopter to Port St. Lucie. From the air, he saw many homes with roofs covered by blue tarps and windows boarded up in anticipation of yet another hurricane, Ivan.
The president and his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush loaded supplies into a long line of cars at a Fort Pierce relief station.
Bush leaned into one car and asked, “What can we help you with, ice? Water? A little food?” The Bushes were flanked by aid workers and other volunteers.
Asked about the possibility that Hurricane Ivan will bring him back to Florida yet again, Bush shook his head and said, “Hope not.”
Nurses fired or suspended
Frances claimed other, more unlikely casualties. In Ormond Beach, a hospital has fired or suspended about 25 nurses for not working during Hurricane Frances, hospital officials said.
Nurses at Florida Hospital-Ormond Memorial were fired for not calling in, not showing up or refusing to work, while others were suspended for not completing a shift or coming late, said hospital spokeswoman Desiree Paradis-Warner.
She said critical care employees are required to work during a disaster under hospital policy.
“It’s in each employee’s job description,” Paradis-Warner said. “We have to have caregivers here. ... Patient safety is our No. 1 priority.”
As the hurricane approached, nurses were advised to work their shifts, she said. The hospital provided shelter for working employees and their families.
Other hospitals said none of their employees were fired or suspended for staffing problems during the hurricane.
“There were relatively few nursing team members who were unable to come in for their shifts,” said John E. Evans, spokesman for Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. “And those were able to notify us, in most cases, of good reasons not to make it, such as storm damage they needed to address.”
Congress rushes through $2 billion in aid
The Republican-controlled Congress rushed the emergency aid bill through Tuesday night, just ahead of Bush’s trip to the politically crucial state.
Bush asked Congress on Aug. 27 to approve $2 billion for recovery efforts after Hurricane Charley. On Monday, after Hurricane Frances’ sweep across the state, he designated his request an emergency, which made the money available in the budget year ending Sept. 30.
After his stop in Port St. Lucie, Bush was flying to Miami to visit the National Hurricane Center, to salute staff members and receive an update on Hurricane Ivan . That storm’s raging winds tore up roofs, trees and utility poles in Barbados and other islands Tuesday, then slammed into Grenada. It wasn’t clear whether it would strike Florida.
Frances and its remnants had been blamed for at least 19 deaths in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, in addition to two earlier in the Bahamas. The president declared a major disaster in the affected counties, meaning residents will be eligible for federal aid.
Meanwhile, thousands of Floridians were beginning the process of recovering from the ravages of Frances, though they were hampered by long lines for basic necessities, congested highways and sticky heat.
Residents’ problems were heightened by anxiety about Ivan, which roared across Grenada on Wednesday, then strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane.
Ivan was still about 1,300 miles away from Miami on Wednesday but a five-day forecast by the National Hurricane Center projected that by Monday it could be near Punta Gorda, where Charley made landfall Aug. 13.
As the remnants of Frances moved northward Wednesday, heavy rain forced hundreds of people to flee their homes in western North Carolina as rivers spread out of their banks and mud slid down the slopes of the mountainous region.
Storm blamed for at least 19 deaths
The storm and its remnants had been blamed for at least 19 deaths in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, in addition to two earlier in the Bahamas.
Wednesday’s trip marked Bush’s 27th trip to the state that decided the 2000 presidential election.
He went there Aug. 15 to inspect damage from Hurricane Charley; on Aug. 27 he went to Miami to meet with emergency aid workers.
Almost all the $2 billion in emergency money would go to replenish disaster relief funds of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The legislation also designates $30 million for Small Business Administration loan programs.
FEMA uses the money for direct aid to families, debris removal, infrastructure repairs and emergency food and shelter.
Both House and Senate lawmakers acknowledged that the $2 billion was only a down payment on federal aid to the state. They said Congress would have to consider a second spending bill once the total damage from the storms becomes clearer.
Many Florida residents went home Tuesday for the first time since Frances pounded the state Sunday, jamming parts of Interstate 95, the major highway along the Atlantic coast. Federal Emergency Management Agency workers got stuck in traffic trying to reach Martin County on the southeast coast.
About 3 million lack power
About 3 million Floridians learned it could take up to a week to restore power to everyone, with the longest wait for Daytona Beach. For many, there was plenty of waiting — for gasoline, for ice and water and to buy portable generators — all amid high humidity and temperatures in the 90s.
“My whole family just wants everything to get back to normal,” said Bobby Williams, 56, of West Palm Beach. He took his 6-year-old grandson along to a distribution center Wednesday to pick up drinking water and 50 pounds of ice.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Warren Newell said there were problems in getting enough trucks to deliver essential supplies because of fuel shortages.
Debra Weatherford was one of seven truckers sitting in the shade of their rigs in West Palm Beach waiting to hear their next destination and wondering where they would get their next supply of diesel fuel.
“Once we left Jacksonville, it got harder to find diesel. Right now we’re waiting to find out where we go next,” said Weatherford, who has been delivering industrial-size generators to Tampa, Sarasota and Palm Beach County.
One man was so desperate for ice that he shot the lock off a freezer. St. Lucie County said fights had broken out and Palm Beach County said more than 200 people were arrested for violating curfews.
Water, ice in great demand
Along with state and nonprofit agencies’ recovery help, FEMA has more than 2.6 million gallons of water and 7.3 million pounds of ice available for Florida and more than 2,700 agency workers are helping with recovery efforts.
Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Companies Inc., the nation’s top home improvement chains, said they were shipping in thousands of portable generators.
Frances struck a wide stretch of Florida’s east coast early Sunday with wind of 105 mph and more than 13 inches of rain, peeling off roofs and flooding streets up to 4 feet deep. It weakened into a tropical storm before sweeping across the Gulf of Mexico and into the Panhandle on Labor Day, causing little damage there.
Heavy rain fell Wednesday on parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, the storm’s remnants knocked out power to hundreds of thousands and closed schools in Alabama and Georgia. Some 180,000 Georgia Power customers remained without power Wednesday morning.
Hurricane Charley, the first half of Florida’s double-whammy, killed 27 people in the state last month and caused an estimated $6.8 billion in insured damage.
Florida chief financial officer Tom Gallagher estimated Frances’ insured damage Tuesday at $2 billion to $4 billion. Total damage is typically double the insured losses.
Florida’s farmers and citrus growers had groves full of damaged fruit and inundated fields, with some cattle standing in water up to their bellies. The state’s entire grapefruit crop could be lost, said Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.