Storm victims ache to rebuild

Lea Fillingim left Pensacola Beach a week ago expecting to return the day after hurricane Ivan blew through.

But after spending the night shut in an inland motel bathroom with her two cats, she was told she couldn't go back to the barrier island. Nearly a week later, she still can't, and not knowing whether she has a home to return to is a huge worry.

"I've lived on the beach all my life -- 52 years. The house I live in is the house my daddy built the year I was born," said Fillingim, who was staying in Gulf Breeze at a friend's home that was severely damaged by flood water. "I love it so much. I hope it's standing."

Residents on the sliver of land that was battered by 16-foot waves and 130 mph winds are frustrated for two reasons: not knowing whether their homes are still there and not knowing when they can begin making repairs, rebuilding or salvaging their possessions.

Authorities planned to open the bridge to the island today to residents only, but once across, people will have to walk to their homes. While that may help either ease or confirm homeowners' fears, for many it won't help efforts to bring over supplies or retrieve items.

Bryan Adams knows his home is still standing, although it is heavily damaged. Adams, a pilot, flew over the island last weekend, where he saw the structure, the bottom level washed out and the siding stripped from an upper level supported by pilings.

"The first 72 hours before I knew was just murder," he said from a friend's home in Atlanta, where he is staying until he can begin making repairs. "I was totally expecting not to see anything there, and then we got there and we saw so many houses were still standing."

The news that there would be limited access to the island wasn't exactly what he wanted to hear. It won't do him much good to be able to cross the bridge and then walk 4.5 miles to see what he already saw.

What he really wants is to be able to start moving forward with the recovery, and it's hard to carry anything of use that far. He said he would like to be able to at least bring back some clothes.

In the meantime, he is doing his best to help others at least get a glimpse of their houses.

When he and his girlfriend flew over the area last weekend, they snapped 511 photos and posted them on the Web at

He has since received more than 800 e-mails from residents, including some from people whose homes were destroyed, but who were grateful just to know.

"One woman, her home is just gone. There's not even a stick of lumber there anymore. She still wrote me and said, 'Thank you very much. Not knowing was the worst,' " Adams said.