17 make house-full during evacuation

BY SUSAN KIM | ORMOND BEACH, FL | July 9, 1998


ORMOND BEACH, FL (July 9, 1998) -- Last week Carolyn Locurto heard on the radio the words that Florida residents

dread these days: "mandatory evacuation." Within five minutes the phone

rang. It was the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, associate pastor, Ormond Beach

Union United Church of Christ.

"He called us and said his home was open, to come on over," said Carolyn. She,

her husband, and their two young children -- one and three -- moved into

Wolter's 3-bedroom home on the Ormond Beach peninsula.

And so did 17 other evacuees. Seven were children under three. Most were

members of Wolter's church. "But, frankly, some, I'd never met," he recalled.

"They were neighbors of someone else."

With his wife and two youngest children staying with other family

members, Wolter and his 16-year-old daughter concentrated on hosting

literally a house-full of wall-to-wall people. "I vacated my bed and then I

vacated the bed I went to from my bed. I've never done anything like this before. I'm a

very private person," said Wolter.

"Our whole family stayed in the master bedroom," said Carolyn. "But Wolter

did more than provide a roof over our heads. We would have been far worse

off emotionally if we'd had to go to a hotel. We were glued to the TV

watching fire updates the whole time."

One afternoon, Carolyn saw her own Hunter's Ridge home -- which was not lost

-- on the news, surrounded by firefighters beating back a wall of flames. "I

just fell apart right there," she said. "I was convinced that this was the end

of our home. Thank God we were all there. We were all going through some of

the worst stress of our lives together."

The sheer logistics of housing 17 people in close quarters was mind-boggling

at times. "At the supermarket we bought diapers, regular milk, soy milk, skim

milk, formula, veggie burgers, hamburgers, and popsicles for the kids, who

couldn't go outside at all because of the heat and the smoke," said Wolter.

"Some people did the wash, some people cleaned, some people cooked, and

some people did nothing."

When he heard about the Ormond Beach evacuations, he called church members

who lived in the most wooded areas. "The fire left some of the most

affluent people in the county homeless," he said. "Our children's

pediatrician, Tito Rodriguez, and his family stayed with us."

Tito's wife, Marcie Rodriguez, said that she was terrified of losing her

Hunter's Ridge house. "It's our dream home. We've poured our whole life

savings into that house, everything we've worked hard for. But when we had to

leave, one of the few things I took was a china doll that my grandmother gave

to me on my 18th birthday.

"An experience like this is humbling. It really shows you're not in charge --

God is. Maybe this is His sign that we need to focus on what's really

important: our family and friends."

After the second day, group dynamics began to surface, Marcie said. "When I

get stressed, I clean. I cleaned his refrigerator, his floor, the living room.

When Carolyn gets stressed, she cooks -- fortunately she's a really good cook!

Every once in awhile, one of us would break down. But someone else would be

strong. It was easy for us to relate to each other's feelings."

Wolter turned away only one family -- a woman, her son, and their dog.

"That would have made it 19, which wouldn't have been a problem except my

daughter has asthma and is allergic to dogs."

Why did he send his own family to safety in order to open his home? "My wife

and I decided together that I needed to stay," he said. "Jesus asks: 'Did you

shelter me when I was homeless?' I had no alternative but to announce that my

home was open. I mean, what if you went to the emergency room and found that

the surgeon got scared and went to Tahiti?"

Wolter, 47, has been a pastor -- and a Florida resident -- for less than a

year. "We've survived two federal disasters in that time, one by fire and one

by water," he said. "We slept in the hallway during the tornadoes, and now

I've been driving to work at 9 a.m. with my headlights on every day. It really

has been a ludicrous year."

After seeing firsthand how emotionally raw the fire survivors have become,

Wolter has been replacing his weekly sermon with a time for sharing

accounts from church members who were evacuated or were housing evacuees. When

the last evacuee returned home, leaving him alone for the first time in

many days, the pastor reflected on his experience. "I hope the people in my

home who are new to the church will see that giving back needs to be a

component of their lives," he said.

Knowing that the fires aren't over, he has also taken time to map his own

escape plan: "If I can't get away from the fire in time, I'll wade into the

Atlantic Ocean carrying a jug of water, and pray that the Coast Guard picks me

up."

Posted July 9, 1998


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