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Tent city: life among workers in Florida's long recovery

Wes Duboise and his buddy Jonathan Welch, both from the deep woods of northern Idaho, are making their first-ever trip to Florida count. They're two rough-and-ready carpenters with a twofold mission: make some cash and help Floridians protect storm-wrecked homes with plastic sheeting as part of Operation Blue Roof.

The cool breath of an air conditioner reminds Duboise of a fall day back in Coeur d'Alene. But this metal shack at the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds where he's quartered for the next three months is a far cry from his creature comforts thousands of miles away.

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With 2,900 condemned homes in St. Lucie County alone and the nearest available hotel room 150 miles away as the crow flies, those left homeless by this summer's storms aren't the only ones roughing it in these arduous times.

Floridians have been hit hard, with devastated homes and storm-torn lives. But there are also thousands of faceless workers here, toiling under trying circumstances. They form an unofficial cavalry of sorts - an army of itinerant heroes who get little attention, but leave families and homes for weeks at a stretch to sleep in makeshift bunkers, often living in worse circumstances than the Floridians they're out to help.

As homeless residents and relief workers jockey for mattresses, even hotel-rich Florida has overstrained its capacity by a country mile. So hundreds, even thousands, of relief workers such as Duboise have gone back to basics, roughing it Swiss Family Robinson style and sleeping in trucks, schools, emergency shelters, and, as here, right beside the fairground stables in small metal activity shacks and staging areas used for Florida fairs.

With 200 more workers expected, this group is in close quarters, to say the least. Their lodgings are often more primitive than homeless shelters - though the homeless are here on the fairgrounds, too, packed in a building nearby "like sardines," says Mr. Welch.

Recovery operations are never an easy task. Yet the overcrowding here, in the wake of a hurricane quartet that destroyed buildings across the state, makes this effort "unprecedented," says Barney Ratliffe, a vice president with Pike Electric, an emergency-response company that sent nearly all of its 2,500 workers from 18 states to Florida.

Even if they don't dominate the evening news, these men and women don't go unappreciated - and that's a comfort, even if hard cots and hot tents aren't. Locals have cheered the workers on: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, power crews," reads a sign. One hurricane-weary Martin County resident, John Arents, talks of the workers with a touch of wonder while fishing for snook at Jensen Beach: "What does it take to leave your family for months and sleep in tents with a bunch of stinky guys?"

When Dana Pearson set out from Fayetteville, Ark., on her inaugural relief mission, she expected to find a certain amount of order. Instead, she's been bounced from shelter to shelter.

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"Right now, home is this notebook, this cellphone, and these rental-car keys," the homemaker and mother of two says, sitting on a cot and using her suitcase for a desk. "The biggest thing I regret now is that I forgot to pack pictures of my family, especially my 2-year-old grandson."

Her "room" is a wall of comfort-kit boxes. Her friend Judy Falk sleeps on a nearby cot. Outside, rows of storm-stripped orange trees stretch for miles in the sun. But Ms. Pearson takes comfort in knowing that she's missed back home. "My husband couldn't even find the sheets to make the bed," she says.

Mr. Duboise and Mr. Welch have built themselves a tidy nest in their shelter, surrounded by power tools, a TV, a DVD player, family pictures, and Duboise's dog, Bud, a blue-heeler mix. But in his rush, says Duboise, he forgot to grab the picture of his mom, whom everyone calls Peanut, off the top of his TV back home.

Around them, young men wearing shark-tooth necklaces and bushy beards still fizzle with energy after 12-hour, six-day shifts as "government mules." Some have hung large American flags - one emblazoned with a native American warrior - over their air mattresses.

Indeed, through 60 days of hurricanes, the hundreds of workers for Pike Electric have seen it all: They've spent nights in their trucks, taken over a whole campground in southern Alabama after hurricane Ivan blew through, and slept practically on top of each other in whatever hotel rooms they could find.

Pulling 17-hour days, seven days a week, they don't pay much attention to making their quarters feel like home. They've come from as far away as the high plains of west Texas to cut, pull, splice and dig - making as much as $2,000 a week.

In Stuart, at a Florida Power and Light staging area, there are hundreds of cots set up, where men sleep in the midday heat with their arms slung over their eyes. Charter buses take some on monster commutes to Boca Raton and Cape Canaveral. A lodging office housed in a trailer has hung a sign saying: "Miracles performed here."

"Home is looking real good to them now," says Mr. Ratliffe at Pike.

Ms. Falk and Ms. Pearson, who live in a different building on the fairgrounds, have set up a small tent in the middle of the room for some privacy. Falk calls her home "honeybun central" for the donated sweetcakes stacked nearly to the ceilings.

"We've all had our little breakdowns," says Falk. But long workdays - three hours of sleep is normal - keeps homesickness mostly at bay. And despite the destruction, the two women look forward to at least a sliver of vacation. "We'd like to spend at least half a day on the beach before we go home," says Falk.

For many, the rough conditions are tempered by the task at hand. "This is the biggest thing I've done in my life, something I'll be able to tell my grandkids about," says Mitch Theiss, a logger from Athol, Idaho.

Fellow Idahoan Duboise shrugs off the hardship: "Living like this is nothing compared to what these people down here in Florida have been through."