Gulf Coast damage estimates trickle in for Georges
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Web posted at: 2:26 p.m. EDT (1826 GMT)
GULF COAST (CNN) -- Preliminary damage estimates showed losses along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Georges topping $320 million by Friday, with some of the hardest hit areas yet to assess losses.
Three people died in Florida and Louisiana as a result of the storm, and the death toll from Georges' earlier trek through the Caribbean was at least 375.
Georges inflicted an estimated $300 million in damages to Florida, two-thirds of that in the Florida Keys, which were hit by the storm's 110 mph winds last Friday. The Florida Panhandle also suffered extensive damage after the hurricane plowed further into the Gulf Coast on Monday.
"When I bought this land, they told me it hadn't flooded in 35 years," said Robert Medenis, as he motored his small fishing boat through chocolate-colored floodwaters toward his property in Crestview, near the Alabama border.
He and his wife, Dorinda, had been living in a trailer on the property while their house was being repaired from the last time the Yellow River jumped its banks, after heavy rain six months ago.
Then came Georges, which dumped up to 25 inches of rain as it sloshed ashore along the Florida Panhandle. The rain and a tidal surge sent rivers out of their banks as the storm slammed the Gulf Coast.
Alabama continued to tally the damage, as the first rays of sunshine in more than four days illuminated its coastline Friday.
Mobile County officials said Thursday that, while losses were still being assessed, private and public property damage is estimated at between $10 million and $20 million.
Across Mobile Bay in Gulf Shores -- a popular beach resort -- officials said losses exceeded $16 million. The preliminary estimate included 251 homes with major damage, along with 16 apartment buildings, and 70 businesses.
Residents and disaster teams picked up storm debris and watched with relief as swollen rivers coursed toward the Gulf. Meanwhile, Gov. Fob James toured the counties hit by Georges' winds and relentless rain.
James said Alabama was fortunate to have no injuries or deaths from the hurricane, which he credited to coastal residents heeding the evacuation orders issued by the state.
The governor also said the structural damage did not compare to Hurricane Frederic in 1979, which cleaned off most beachside structures in Alabama.
On Dauphin Island, however, officials said Georges destroyed up to 50 homes and left another 40 uninhabitable.
In Pascagoula, Mississippi, about 50 miles west of Mobile, waters were still rising and the state has not yet released damage estimates.
"My home's in pretty bad shape," said retired bus driver Jimmy Law, as he watched floodwaters from the Escatawpa River swamp the Lakeview Catfish Restaurant east of Pascagoula.
Water from bloated rivers and bayous still block Law and his neighbors from their homes. "It'll be weeks before we can get in," he said.
Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, the largest private employer in the state, completed preparations to restart regular shifts on Friday.
Casino row returned to life along the state's 26 miles of manmade beach, and those operations that survived the hurricane reported brisk business.
President Clinton declared a major disaster in three coastal counties on Thursday, freeing up more federal funds to help the state recover from the hurricane.
Residents and business owners in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties are now eligible to apply for federal grants to cover minor repairs and disaster-related expenses.
Low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration will also be available for residential and business losses not covered by insurance.
"The expanded assistance offered by the president will start the important process of helping them to begin rebuilding their lives," said James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Hurricane Georges, along with Tropical Storm Frances earlier last month, caused at least $2.5 million in damages to wildlife areas in Louisiana and nearly destroyed some of the state's barrier islands.
"The Chandeleur chain is essentially gone," said Phil Bowman, undersecretary of the state's wildlife and fisheries department.
The small chain of barrier sand dunes lies in the Gulf of Mexico east of New Orleans.
"There are only some small spots of sand left," said Bowman, adding that nearby Breton Island and Grand Gosier Island also were heavily damaged.
Georges sloshed directory over Grand Gosier, home to a flock of Brown Pelicans, protected by law because of their low numbers.
Georges inflicted $1.3 million in damage at the Pass a Loutre Game and Fish Preserve, Bowman said.
Louisiana has yet to assess the total damage to wildlife, fisheries and vegetation that keeps fresh water marshes from turning into Gulf bays.
New Orleans, which feared catastrophic flooding, received only one inch of rain as Georges shifted slightly east.
Insurance officials said the estimates cited in damage reports often do not include losses to property owners without flood insurance.
"It's not uncommon that the uninsured losses can be greater than the insured losses," said Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
Goldstein said homeowner insurance rates have been going up because Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992, "was a defining event in the insurance industry."
Andrew was the most expensive hurricane ever, causing $1.8 billion in damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"There were 600,000 claims out of Andrew, and enormous numbers of homes destroyed. We're not going to see that with Georges. This is not an Andrew," Goldstein said.
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