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Florida's West Coast Warily Awaits Wilma

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In Florida, residents who are preparing for Hurricane Wilma's forecast arrival tomorrow morning are still trying to recover from being hit by four major hurricanes last year. The most destructive of those storms, Hurricane Charley, killed 22 people and left thousands homeless as it slammed into the city of Punta Gorda. NPR's Luke Burbank has this report.

(Soundbite of car)

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

The directions to FEMAville are simple. Take Airport Road east over I-75 and pass the bail bondsman's trailer. If you hit the Charlotte County Jail, you've gone too far, but the directions are almost unnecessary because you can't miss the row after row of sterile white trailer homes.

Ms. KELLY JONES(ph): We still did not want to be here. We still don't want to be here but it's so hard affording places now because rent is so high.

BURBANK: Kelly Jones has been living in what locals have nicknamed FEMAville since last December with her boyfriend and daughter. Like the thousand or so other people here, they're still scrambling to get their lives back together after last year's storm, Hurricane Charley.

Ms. JONES: I'm nervous that they're going to tell us that we have to evacuate obviously because we're in mobile homes, and they don't withhold very good when it comes to wind. And I don't know. We don't know where we're going to go. We don't want to go to a shelter because there's just so many people and it's crazy.

BURBANK: The family is on the way to a Wal-Mart to pick up supplies. If and when Wilma gets here, they have a plan, albeit not one they're that excited about.

Ms. JONES: We're going to hunker down and stay in the tra--I mean, everything we own is in that trailer. That's all we have.

BURBANK: Memories of Charley and the specter of another storm have Jones' five-year-old daughter scared, so she says she tries to keep her away from the TV news. Paul Glembocki, another resident of the encampment, is on his way out for supplies.

Mr. PAUL GLEMBOCKI: Tonight I'm going to get some extra gasoline, stuff like that. We've already got a lot of canned food and we've got a big cooler. We're going to throw some extra stuff in there. You know, it--for being with what happened last time, it's a lot easier to get prepared this time. You know, we know exactly what we need and what we don't need.

BURBANK: The local Wal-Mart is well stocked, but only because managers ordered four extra truckloads of batteries, water and supplies. Wilma is predicted to be a much milder storm than Charley, but it's hard to find someone here who wasn't affected on that Friday the 13th when Charley hit, and the memories are still fresh.

Ms. ANNETTE ROHLER (Owner, Annette's Beauty Shop): Charley was rough. He hit us hard, but the county's coming back.

BURBANK: Annette Rohler owns Annette's Beauty Shop in Punta Gorda. She's standing in a cloud of tiny black bugs locals call no-see-ems as she helps a friend board up his business.

Ms. ROHLER: And it's, like, `Come on, Wilma. You're only a 1 or 2. Come on, baby. We can take you.'

BURBANK: Rohler says her biggest fear is not a direct hit from Wilma but rather the surge of water that could swamp the city if the storm hits to the north.

Ms. ROHLER: That's what scares us the most. If she comes in north of us, we're screwed. We're screwed. All of us doing all of this plywood will be for nothing 'cause it's going to be under water.

BURBANK: Locals who lived through Charley say that water surge could go from the beach back across the interstate and all the way to FEMAville. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Punta Gorda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.