The 2004 Atlantic hurricane season in the United States has been one of the most destructive in history. In just the past six weeks, four hurricanes have pounded the southern state of Florida. The quick succession of storms has hampered recovery efforts by the federal agency charged with responding to disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is stretched to the limit as it responds to millions of hurricane victims in Florida and along the southern and eastern coasts of the United States. Response teams sent out after hurricane Charley slammed into the state in mid August were still cleaning up when hurricane Frances hit on September 4. Hurricane Ivan followed September 16 and then Jeanne on September 24. FEMA Director Michael Brown says the hurricanes have put his agency under unusual pressure.
"It's been a huge challenge for FEMA, primarily because we come in, we do our response efforts, we save lives, we protect property and then we start the recovery process," he said. "We had to stop that for a couple of days while the next storm blows through. It's frustrating for our people, it's frustrating for the victims, and it slows down that recovery process."
After four hurricanes, FEMA is clearly being tested. The agency's help lines have received more than one million calls. 670,000 people have filed applications for assistance and more than 5000 FEMA employees are now working on hurricane relief. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose state has had four national disaster declarations, says the damage is unprecedented.
"We've got a massive effort ahead of us," said Governor Bush. "We have strained resources that will be coming, but people are going to have to be patient. There are not as many utility crews in the state, but we've got three million people without power at least."
The destruction is so widespread, insurance industry damage estimates top more than $25 billion. Damage estimates don't count the emotional toll, with thousands of people not only homeless, but also jobless due to lost business as a result of the storms. Hurricane victims are tired and frustrated and many, such as Frannie Hutchinson feel FEMA's relief efforts have been inadequate. "FEMA has done absolutely nothing," said Ms. Hutchinson. "I've made the phone calls in there. I stood in line and went through the process and it will be two weeks tomorrow and I've not heard a word."
Local officials such as St. Lucie County Administrator Doug Anderson are also frustrated by the federal response, but understand the demands FEMA faces.
"FEMA is in here. I was expressing my frustrations yesterday. Apparently we got their attention. They have a lot of people in here today," he added.
There are still two months remaining in the 2004 hurricane season, but FEMA hopes there will be no more major storms so that it has time to finish relief and reconstruction efforts. Meteorologists can't promise what will happen through November, but the immediate forecast shows no threatening storm systems on the horizon.