FL hurricane needs linger

Fifteen months after Hurricane Charley cut a devastating swath across Florida, people are admitting - some of them for the very first time - they need help.

BY SUSAN KIM | WAUCHULA, Fla. | November 30, 2005



"For all the love we've been shown by Christ, we want to show that love to other people."

—Henry Rempel


Fifteen months after Hurricane Charley cut a devastating swath across Florida, people are admitting - some for the very first time - they need help.

They approach Ron Enns on the street in Hardee County. "Some of them have just felt immobilized and traumatized," explained Enns, a Mennonite Disaster Service project director based in Wauchula. "Almost a year and a half later, there is still so much left to do."

More than 350 people in the county are still living in temporary trailer homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With the deadline to vacate the trailers approaching - for some people as soon as mid-February - the county could be looking at more homelessness than it had before Hurricane Charley ever hit. And - this far out from the storm's initial headline-making fury - there are fewer resources on hand to help people cope, said Enns.

That's why MDS and other faith-based groups have pledged to be in Hardee County for the long haul, he said, working together through a long-term recovery committee called "Christians Helping in the Recovery Process," or CHIRP.

MDS is concentrating its efforts on coordinating volunteer teams to repair and rebuild hurricane-damaged homes. The teams have repaired or rebuilt 92 homes, said Enns. About half the volunteers have come from the U.S., the other half from Canada.

This week volunteers were scattered throughout Wauchula, Zolfo Springs and Bowling Green. They were working in pouring rain - but those from Manitoba said since temperatures plunged into the 20s this week at home, they weren't complaining in Florida's 70-degree temperatures.

Enns and the MDS teams are taking on all the work they can logistically handle - and they have booked volunteer teams every week through March. But Enns says there are families in Hardee County that still need help. "I see people here working hard at their jobs, maybe trying to support a family on one income. Then they're trying to fix their damaged homes during their spare hours. They have a few resources - maybe they had a little bit of insurance - but nowhere near enough."

Some homes crumbled by the wind or crushed by trees have stood that way for 15 months. Many homes have FEMA trailers parked in the yards. Roofs are covered by blue tarp after blue tarp - and some tarps are shredded and badly need replacing.

Just outside town, Henry Rempel and Herman Hochstetler are working together steadily on a home. Their construction skill is obvious but Rempel downplays it. "I call myself a jack of all trades - and a master of none," he laughed. But he is serious about describing his mission as a volunteer. "I want to do something to help other people. For all the love we've been shown by Christ, we want to show that love to other people."

Another volunteer, Annette Martens, said volunteer teams create strong bonds. "It's like a little community," she said. "We've made so many new friends."

House dedications - when volunteers and homeowners gather to officially open and bless a dwelling - are among the most moving moments a volunteer can experience, reflected Jim Martens, Annette's husband. "That really keeps your mind focused on why you do it," he said.

Annette agreed. "It puts more meaning into why you're here. When you see the expressions and the emotions of the homeowners, it's touching."

Back at the MDS project headquarters - housed in the Northside Baptist Church - John and Margaret Blatz have been cooking meals for volunteers. This is their 11th trip as volunteers with MDS. They got started when they saw a notice in a church bulletin. "We saw they needed cooks," said John Blatz. "Then they asked if we could go right away. We went right away, and we've been going ever since."

Ron Enns and his volunteer teams admitted they were anxious when Hurricane Wilma was approaching in October of this year. Parts of South Florida were badly damaged by that storm, but Hardee County was largely spared. "We spent five days on edge," said Enns. The night the storm blew over, residents and volunteers alike were concerned about tornadoes that tend to spin off hurricanes. "We slept in a church that had the pews bolted to the floor," said Enns.

As MDS volunteers repair and rebuild homes, they're also making the dwellings more hurricane proof than before, said Enns, who added that home building in Florida is vastly different from his home country of Canada. "The Florida building codes are strict. It's a whole different building process down here. In Canada, we build to keep heat in. We tend to insulate heavily. Here in Florida, you build to keep heat out."

In Canada and in the northern U.S., part of disaster mitigation involves building a home to withstand the weight of snow drifts. In Florida, houses are built more to withstand being lifted by updrafts of strong wind.

Using volunteer labor saves tremendously on the cost of housing, said Enns, but MDS homes are always built with a homeowner's long-term financial picture in mind. "You have to build a house that's affordable after the fact in terms of upkeep, taxes and utilities," he said.


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