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USA: Floridians apply lessons learned

American Red Cross
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Punta Gorda residents apply lessons from Hurricane Charley in Preparing for Wilma to Make Landfall

Written by Kevin Titus , Special to

Sunday, October 23, 2005, PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - After Hurricane Charley devastated the Punta Gorda, Fla., area last August, many people learned valuable that are being put into action this time around as Florida residents anticipate and prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Wilma, which already has unleashed its destructive force on the coast of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Preparations in Florida began earlier last week, when forecasters suggested that Wilma's projected path would include a sharp turn after entering the Gulf of Mexico that would put it on course for Southwest Florida, and are ongoing. In area stores, shoppers are sticking with appropriate emergency supplies such as bottled water, batteries and non-perishable foods -- despite the tempting, deep discounts on frozen foods.

Last year, Ed Schmidt of Punta Gorda learned a lot following hurricane Charley. The home that he and his wife have lived in since 1970 suffered multiple broken windows as well as a damaged and leaking roof. Five downed trees -- large and tall enough to destroy the house -- surrounded the Schmidt home but miraculously missed hitting and the house.

"The trees had a clean break, as if a guillotine cut them off," said Schmidt, who indicated that he and his wife Wendy left their home last year without much preparation. "We just locked up and went to our friends' home four streets over because it was on higher ground. But it was the wind, not the water that hurt the houses."

Though he admits that the five royal palms that fell were aesthetically pleasing, he said that he's glad they're gone now so as not to threaten their house this hurricane season.

While the Schmidts and their neighbors in Punta Gorda and adjacent towns survived hurricane Charley last year, many still have not recovered. Many homes clearly have new roofs and recent repair are evident, but others have tarps covering their homes and damage to houses as well as area businesses remain apparent.

This year, as Wilma approaches Florida, Schmidt has been busy installing his hurricane shutters, which he purchased after the storms last year. He didn't cover any of his windows last year and the home suffered as a result. Though he is happy to have the added protection, the weariness of this record season is evident.

"These stupid things can remain up until Christmas," he said referring to the shutters. "I'll paint them red and green."

He and his wife learned their lesson and -- more importantly -- they're applying what they learned by taking steps to prepare for Hurricane Wilma. In addition to the obvious shutters on the home's windows, Schmidt had the oak trees trimmed lower to allow wind to go through, and so they are less likely to reach the house if they fall. He is also proud of his metal roof. He saw how the shingles on his and other homes in the area couldn't withstand hurricane-strength winds, so he invested some funds in addition to his insurance money for roof replacement. He's not alone. Many of the homes in the area appear to have newer metal roofs.

They also have an evacuation plan established.

"We're not staying," he said. Although he had lived in his home for 35 years, he said that they never had a plan. "Last year we got under a mattress and prayed."

This time around they're protecting their treasured home and taking steps to protect themselves. They have their non-perishable food, bottled water, flashlights, extra batteries and all of their important documents and cherished photos in a large plastic container that will go with them, if and when they need evacuate to avoid the potential surge of water. They'll take one car and leave one in the garage that weathered Hurricane Charley well. Schmidt wished he could convince more people to learn from previous storms and heed the warnings.

"People are replicating what failed," he said. "We're not doing that -- I think we're going to be fine."

The personal preparedness efforts and mitigation steps he has taken will undoubtedly pay off for the Schmidt family and many others in Southwest Florida who are applying the lessons learned from Charley to minimize the risk to their homes and lives.

During the unprecedented 2004 hurricane season, the American Red Cross launched the largest natural disaster relief effort in its history -- to that point in time -- responding to four back-to-back hurricanes. The Red Cross, in coordination with other relief organizations and government partners, provided relief and aid to ensure evacuees and victims of Hurricane Charley as well as Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne had a safe place to stay during the storms and their aftermath.

"Red Cross was great," said Schmidt.

The Red Cross is encouraging residents in affected areas to follow Schmidt's lead in getting prepared for the coming storm front. Residents should monitor their local media for information and the nearest locations of Red Cross evacuation shelters.

For more information regarding how to prepare for disasters, visit the "Get Prepared" section on and be sure to download a printable "Hurricane Evacuation Checklist," available as a web page or PDF (Adobe Acrobat Reader required).

Kevin Titus has been deployed to the Red Cross relief efforts for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and now Wilma. Residing in Cincinnati, Ohio, he is currently providing Public Affairs support in the Florida area.

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