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For Thousands, Shelters Become Home

'It's Amazing How Quickly Your Priorities Fall Into Place,' Says One Floridian

By Ceci Connolly and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page A09

WAUCHULA, Fla., Aug. 14 -- Charlene Dale thought she could tough out Hurricane Charley in her apartment here -- until the roof collapsed and water began streaming into her bedroom.

"Thank God, they rescued me," said Dale, one of hundreds forced to spend Friday night in a makeshift shelter at the local elementary school. "I have arthritis, so it's been kind of tough."

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Just about dinnertime Friday, Hurricane Charley, with winds over 100 mph, ripped across central Florida, devouring trees, power lines, entire motor homes and anything else that stood in its way. Thousands of people were left homeless, although, with many roads still impassable Saturday, emergency officials had difficulty estimating the full extent of the damage -- in lives or money.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials estimated that about 50,000 people were in shelters. Florida is seeking emergency housing assistance for 10,000.

Volunteers at Wauchula Elementary School, with a boost of power from the school generator, managed to turn on the lights in the cafeteria. They served 800 sandwiches Friday and 400 Saturday and delivered 850 more around town, said cafeteria manager Janie Evans, who had not slept since Thursday when she first began planning for the hurricane.

"We used up the groceries for next week's school, but I don't think there's going to be school," Evans said. As rain streamed down outside the kitchen door, Evans's team attempted to light an enormous jury-rigged barbecue in the hopes of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers for rescue workers.

Not since Hurricane Donna dropped down on this hamlet in 1960 have the people of Wauchula endured such hardship.

After spending the night at a school in nearby Zolfo Springs, Amelia Burns and her family returned to their double-wide trailer early Saturday morning to assess the damage.

"We cried the whole way home," she said. The trailer survived, but the back porch and barn were destroyed and the family's goats have fled.

Area stores closed at noon Friday, so Burns had no ice to preserve the family's food. "I had $80 worth of food. It's gone," she said.

Seated on a cafeteria bench beside her, Burns's daughter-in-law was not so lucky. Her trailer was crushed by a giant tree, leaving Amanda Burns, her husband and their two children homeless.

Tracey Nix, assistant principal of the Wauchula school, had been seated at her kitchen table with her husband and two daughters when the two picture windows "began to rattle and then exploded."

They dashed into the safety of the laundry room and, when the eye of the storm passed overhead, she slipped out to grab family photo albums and her grandparents' heirlooms.

"It's amazing how quickly your priorities fall into place," she said, her eyes welling up.

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