FL creates new interfaith group

A new interfaith group in Sarasota is responding to heavy flooding that forced the evacuation of about 3,000 people in late June.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | SARASOTA, Fla. | August 8, 2003



"I think a lot of people in Hidden River thought they were safe."

—Nelson Hay


A new interfaith group in Sarasota is responding to heavy flooding that forced the evacuation of about 3,000 people in late June.

And the acronym for the Sarasota Interfaith/InterAgency Network (SIIN) just might raise a few eyebrows. At least that's what executive director Nelson Hay hopes.

"Well, we hope this will get a little attention," Hay said.

And attention may translate into funding for a disaster that has gone largely unnoticed outside of Florida. The flooding, however, was bad enough to damage more than 800 homes, and caused the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve grants to local governments in seven counties.

A lot more work will have to be done, in order "to get people back to where they were before the disaster," Hay said, "which I'm beginning to see is a hard thing to do."

Hay, chairman of the deacons' committee at the United Church of Christ in Venice, Fla., is new to this sort of work. But he has an MBA from Harvard, and he spent 25 years working for the American Gas Association. Hay hopes his business and administrative experience will make up for his inexperience in disaster response.

"At this point in time, I think that's what's needed here," he said. "I can sort of serve as a consultant because I'm so fresh at this, coming from the outside."

SIIN has only existed for a few weeks, but it has brought together about 30 different churches and other organizations, and Hay said the group will focus on the long-term needs of those hit by the flooding.

Some of those hit the hardest, Hay said, lived in Hidden River, an upper middle-class subdivision on the Myakka River a community that was flooded when a nearby dike broke.

"It doesn't matter where you are in relation to sea level," he said. "I think a lot of people in Hidden River thought they were safe. They obviously didn't anticipate this."

What happened to this community presents two problems, Hay said. First, the families affected were not impoverished or unemployed. On the other hand, they also weren't insured for the kind of damage their homes received. Second, the dike was owned by a community association, not by the state or local government, and figuring out a way to get the dike repaired quickly is likely to prove a big challenge.

The first problem the relative affluence of the most affected community will be resolved, Hay said, when people realize how hard these people were hit.

"It's not the lives of the rich and famous out there," he said. And if these people had nicer than average homes before the flood, they now have the huge mortgages to pay off while, in the meantime, they are living in motel rooms.

"But there's definitely this issue. People look and say, 'Why do we want to help in an affluent neighborhood?'" he said. "As people of faith, I think we have to be sympathetic, empathetic, to everyone."

The second problem, fixing the dike, is an issue that Jody Hill, the director of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster, or FIND, is also checking into.

Both Hill and Hay are trying to figure out a way that FEMA funds might be made available for this purpose. But if this happens, it will be the result of a lengthy bureaucratic process, which could take six months or more, Hill said.

Until that can be resolved, "the main concern of the moment is temporary housing," she said.

Hay said that most of the dozen families left homeless have found some kind of temporary accommodations, but two families are looking for trailer trailers they can set up on their property. One of the first missions of SIIN, Hay said, is to find people to donate those two trailers.


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