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article imageOh no, here we go again: Atlantic hurricane season

By Leila MACOR (AFP)     Jun 1, 2018 in Environment

Listen closely and you'll hear the groan of collective dread in Florida and the Caribbean: yes, it's already hurricane season again.

Both places were pummeled last year by monster storms and both -- in the case of Florida it was the plume of once-lovely coral islands known as the Florida Keys -- are still struggling to rebuild.

"If a storm comes through, we're screwed," said Cindy P., a 48-year-old waitress who lives in the Keys and explained houses in the area weren't yet prepared.

In the Caribbean, hit by two hurricanes in rapid-fire succession in September, the pain and shock of all that is still quite raw. People can't seem to catch their breath.

This week alone, a new study concluded that in Puerto Rico, 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The official toll in the US territory is 64 dead.

Against that jittery and shell-shocked backdrop, the new hurricane season started Friday.

Not even waiting for it, a plucky subtropical storm named Alberto caused flooding this week along the US East Coast.

Authorities in Florida say they have learned their lesson and are promising better telecoms and management of relief funds.

In Puerto Rico, the government is recommending that people amass provisions for 10 days, rather than just three as had been the case until now.

Much of the territory went months without water or power after Hurricane Maria.

The model of an affordable house built to withstand storms  is seen next to a house with the roof st...
The model of an affordable house built to withstand storms, is seen next to a house with the roof still unrepaired and covered by plastic bags in Big Pine Key
Leila MACOR, AFP

But like that waitress Cyndi, people do not feel ready.

The Florida Keys are an archipelago that arcs out 180 kilometers (110 miles) southwest from the southern tip of the state and are connected by 42 bridges.

In this tourist destination, debris still clogs many canals. In working class neighborhoods you see many destroyed homes and some people living in tents on their front lawns.

"We take care of people up to a point. However, there reaches a point where they have to start taking care of themselves again," said Martin Senterfitt, emergency management director of Monroe County, which includes the keys.

- Latent problems -

A "now hiring" sign in a construction area in the Florida Keys  which is still struggling ...
A "now hiring" sign in a construction area in the Florida Keys, which is still struggling to rebuild after being pummeled last year by a monster storm
Leila MACOR, AFP

Hurricanes Irma and Maria accentuated problems that were already latent in areas that they blasted with storm surges and more-than-200 kilometer per hour winds.

For instance, of the 55,000 homes in the keys, more than 1,000 were reduced to their foundations and 3,000 suffered major damage. Also lost were 1,044 mobile homes and pre-fab houses.

More expensive homes, especially those in the last island, Key West, were spared by Irma, which scored a direct hit on the islands on September 10.

It was devastating for the working class: restaurant workers, landscapers, construction people and other low earners cannot find affordable housing. So they packed up and shipped out, leaving many employers without a workforce.

Many businesses have dusty "Help Wanted" signs in their front windows.

Many employers in the Florida Keys say they are struggling to find workers  after many people fled d...
Many employers in the Florida Keys say they are struggling to find workers, after many people fled during last year's hurricane season
Leila MACOR, AFP

"We have major demand and there's no supply," Diane Eliopoulus, marketing manager at a Hard Rock Cafe in Key West, said at a board of commissioners meeting at which she said she had lost many employees.

"I get a lot of applicants, not anyone from this area. I say to them, 'would you mind looking at the housing market before making a decision to come?' I never get a call back," she added.

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria laid bare the decrepit state of the territory's electrical grid.

Eight months after the storm hit on September 20, there are still regular blackouts. And some 60,000 customers are still without power in the US possession of 3.3 million people, which was already saddled with a gargantuan debt crisis.

That extended lack of electricity killed older and sick people who depended on respirators or insulin, caused unemployment to rise and prompted nearly 200,000 people to leave the islands.

- Lessons learned -

Governor Ricardo Rossello also says he has learned his lesson. The government filled warehouses with spare parts and prepared agreements that will allow for immediate assistance if the electrical grid collapses again.

"If we once again have to wait 50 days for the US Corps of Engineers to reach Puerto Rico, then we have not learned anything," Rossello said this week as he announced the plan.

Tarps cover a house with the roof still unrepaired after the damage caused by hurricane Irma in Big ...
Tarps cover a house with the roof still unrepaired after the damage caused by hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida
Leila MACOR, AFP

In Barbuda, a tiny island in the Caribbean, Irma blew in like a bomb, destroying pretty much everything.

It is still recovering from damage estimated at more than $200 million. Just about everybody fled.

To this day, only 500 of the original 1,800 inhabitants have come back.

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