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FL struggles after flood

Heavy rain in late June flooded out seven Florida counties, damaging more than 800 homes, and causing Gov. Jeb Bush to declare those counties disaster areas.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | July 18, 2003


"It's been an incredible event to bring people together."

—Rev. Marion Sortore


Heavy rain in late June flooded out seven Florida counties, damaging more than 800 homes, and causing Gov. Jeb Bush to declare those counties disaster areas. When the flooding was at its highest in some cases over nine feet more than 3,000 people had to be evacuated.

Now the hardest-hit of these counties, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte, the area on Florida's west coast between Tampa and Fort Myers, are struggling to rebuild. At the center of these efforts in the Miakka United Methodist Church, a small community church with a congregation of about 40 people, located along the banks of the Myakka River. (Miakka and Myakka are alternate spellings of a Native American tribe.)

The church may be small, said the Rev. Marion Sortore, the pastor, but it has enough room in its fellowship hall, Sunday school classrooms and sanctuary to serve as a base of operations for all the relief work within a 30-mile radius.

"I can't count the number of church groups that have been through," she said.

Her church is has enough support to feed all the workers her congregation, using food donated by The Salvation Army and various businesses has provided meals to workers since the end of June.

The groups working out of Sortore's church are helping the families of about 70 homes. These were the people who got the worst of the flooding, and most of them have homes along the Myakka River. A dozen of these homes were totally destroyed, Sortore said.

"On a big scale that's small," she said, "but for a community it's huge."

The types of homes affected lie at the extreme ends of the economic spectrum: very wealthy people living in fancy homes with well-manicured lawns to "financially-challenged" farmers.

"Everyone, rich and poor alike have been wiped out," she said. "It's been an incredible event to bring people together."

Workers from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief have been some of the more active volunteers ("they have been incredible," she said). Sortore has about 50 of them camped out at her church.

"They are doing the muck-outs," she said. "In three days that can strip it right down to the two-by-fours so it looks like it's a newly constructed home."

In addition to all the church groups, there are relief and emergency care workers from two counties as well as American Red Cross volunteers.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has helped out with grants totaling about $10,000, as well as equipment like electricity generators and pressure washers.

Local businesses have contributed a lot in terms of supplies, she said Home Depot, Publix and Sysco, to name some of the larger contributors.

"I've never been through this before," she said, adding that she's only been on the job a year, and worked as a high school principal before becoming a pastor. "We're just trusting God and flying as we go along here."

What most impressed Sortore, besides the dedication of the volunteers, are "the incredible miracles" she comes across every day.

For example, when Sortore went to visit a poor old woman who lives along the banks of the Myakka River, she noticed that the woman's carpet was covered with a slimy black mold. The elderly woman, who has asthma, was coughing quite a lot.

Sortore told the woman she had to have the carpet torn out, for the sake of her health. But the woman was stubborn. She wanted to know who would replace it. Sortore said, "Don't worry about that. I'll get it replaced."

Not knowing exactly how she was going to accomplish this, she walked outside the woman's home, only to discovered five rolls of carpeting deposited outside left, apparently, by an anonymous Good Samaritan.

"You know when people are risking for God, it provides ground for Him to work," she said. "But when we stay within our own little comfort zones, it doesn't give Him much room to do anything spectacular."

Sortore said there has been talk of the Federal Emergency Management Agency bringing in travel trailers for the displace families. (Most of these people are either stayed with relatives or are camped out near their wrecked homes, she said.)

"We hope it will come to that," she said. "We're on day 25, and I don't know what's ahead. I just know that we're here until it's done."

Long-term work shouldered by local churches with financial support from UMCOR and other faith-based disaster response groups is likely to go on for a while.

Leaders and volunteers from Miakka United Methodist Church will work with other denominations to develop an interfaith flood recovery group that will address the needs of flood survivors over the coming months and possibly years.

And the long-term need will be significant, said the Rev. Paul Binder, a retired pastor with the United Church of Christ.

"Because none of these houses were in the flood plain, we suspect that none of these houses had flood insurance," he said.


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