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OPAL CLEANUP - A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

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Restoring electrical power to homes pummeled by Hurricane Opal was just another job for utility worker Tony Mellini - until he met the faces behind the house numbers.

"I see a lot of my friends," Mellini said, his voice breaking at a Sunday town meeting of Santa Rosa Island's Okaloosa County residents."It's a lot more meaningful looking at you."

Opal blew ashore east of Pensacola on Wednesday evening with 144 mph wind gusts, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses along a 120-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle's pristine beaches from Pensacola Beach to Mexico Beach.

The hurricane killed 19 people in four states: two in Florida, two in North Carolina, nine in Georgia and six in Alabama.

It also caused at least $1.8 billion in damage to insured property along Florida's Gulf coast, making it the nation's third-costliest storm. Andrew inflicted $17 billion in damage in 1992, and Hugo caused $4.2 billion in 1989.

Unlike on other parts of the Panhandle, many of Okaloosa County's homes were shielded from the hurricane by beachfront hotels, condominiums and apartment build- ings. Officials said 95 percent of single-family residences appeared to be inhabitable or repairable.

Okaloosa County residents were to be bused to their homes Monday and allowed to begin cleaning up or removing valuables and getting their utilities restored. They will be able to go home Tuesday in their own vehicles and stay if they wish.

With power gradually being restored during the weekend, other Panhandle residents began clearing debris, calling insurers, reopening businesses and getting a closer look at the damage to their homes, businesses and communities.

State Farm, Florida's largest insurer, said it expected to receive up to 60,000 damage claims from homeowners in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.