Project Hope gives helping hand in FL

BY JIM SKILLINGTON | CENTRAL FLORIDA | July 7, 1998


CENTRAL FLORIDA (July 7, 1998) -- As central Florida residents returned to their homes this week after a

weekend evacuation, many were greeted by information centers operated by

the state Department of Emergency Management. The centers were created to

help provide local answers.

In addition, "Project Hope," sent crisis counseling teams door-to-door

to affected neighborhoods.

Although the mandatory evacuations have been lifted in Flagler County, a

voluntary evacuation order remains in effect.

Just 109 homes throughout the state have been destroyed by wildfires

since Memorial Day, the Florida Division on Emergency Management reported

Monday morning. State-wide, 192 homes have received major damage.

Approximately 90 percent of Flagler County's 45,000 residents left

Friday in response to an evacuation order after firefighters lost control

of massive wildfires.

Even so, the ash in the streets, the dark smoke in the skies and the

crunching of the dry ground continues to cause fear among residents returning

to their homes, said Tom Aglio, executive director of Catholic Social Services

for the diocese of Orlando.

Aglio said he visited some of the evacuated areas, and in many communities,

fire fighters had preserved the homes even as the vegetation all around had

burned away.

The disaster that has been called "the Hurricane Andrew of wildfires,"

by Joe Wooden, a spokesperson for the Volusia County Division of Emergency

Management, forced tens of thousands of people from their homes since last

Wednesday when winds picked up and wildfires jumped fire breaks heading for

the heavily-populated east coast of Florida.

More than 100,000 acres are burned by wildfires in a typical year in

Florida, but this year, record heat, unusually low humidity and a lack of

rain, made fueled massive fires that have burned nearly 475,000 acres.

While state fire officials say only a tropical system that would provide

the state with several days of rain will extinguish all of the fires, this

week Weather forecasters are only calling for scattered thunderstorms -- a

mixed blessing because many of the fires have been a result of lightning

strikes.

Fire officials say it is too early to celebrate. While most of the

worst fires were brought under control during the weekend, other fires are

still burning across the state. And a change in the wind may again

threaten significant populations.

Hundreds of fire fighting crews and equipment from around the country

poured in to the fire-ravaged area.By Sunday night, more than 7,000

firefighters from 46 different states across the nation are now involved in

combating the flames.

Faith-based organizations across the state have been assisting

firefighters by providing food and beverages. In addition, some volunteers

have been helping physically-challenged persons move to safer locations. On

Friday, volunteers from Adventist Community Services helped evacuate a

nursing home that was later destroyed by the fires.

Faith-based organizations are accelerating their efforts to help. County

emergency officials say countless local churches have provided assistance

in feeding and providing beverages for the firefighters

trying to control the fires, said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida

Interfaith Networking in Disaster (FIND).

According to Lawrence A. Rankin, Associate Council Director for the

Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, all of the local

churches within 50 miles of a fire in the Melbourne and DeLand districts,

have been put on alert in case they are needed for use as a feeding

station, secondary shelter or specialized pastoral care.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is among the

faith-based disaster response organizations to have sent money to assist in

the early stage of Florida relief efforts. Other disaster response

organizations are assessing the best way to respond.

"We don't even know yet what we're going to be called to do in a week or

10 days," Aglio said.

The Salvation Army has been providing food, beverages and wet

towels, for fire fighters and is

helping state officials stock a warehouse in Daytona Beach with materials

needed for fire survivors, according to spokeswoman Mary Van Osdol.

But until the fires are extinguished and the disaster is contained,

some Florida disaster response organizations are adopting a "wait-and-see"

approach for any long-term relief efforts.

"It's an unusual kind of psychology," said Paul J. Binder, Church World

Service's Disaster Resource Consultant.

Unlike hurricanes and tornadoes, people don't know when the fires will be

over, or how much damage they might cause, he said.

"All we can do is sit tight and respond. There's nothing proactive we

can do in a disaster," said Margaret Linnane, executive director of Second

Harvest Food Bank in Orlando, Fla.

Seminole Heart, an interfaith organization working in Seminole County,

is now trying

to help several rural families burned out of their homes in early June.

"The rural poor may not have any home insurance," Binder said. "They could

easily lose their homes to the fires and face total devastation."

While fire fighters have saved some homes from destruction that have been

within a few yards from the fires, many homeowners are finding the flames

have melted their well casings, Hill said. Repairs

may cost $1,000 to $1,500 per home.

President Clinton has made 47 counties in Florida affected by the

wildfires to be a major disaster, qualifying state for Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA) funds.

The assistance, to be coordinated by Federal Emergency Management Agency

(FEMA), may include grants to help pay for temporary housing, minor home

repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans

from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover

residential and business losses not fully compensated by insurance.

Federal funds will also be provided for the state and affected local

governments in the four counties to pay 75 percent of the eligible cost for

debris removal and emergency services related to the disaster.

Meanwhile, while the headlines on regional newspapers proclaim, "Pray for

Rain!" state emergency officials, say what is really needed is several days

of prolonged, tropical rains. "How ironic it is to be hoping for a tropical

storm in Florida," said Hill. -- Daryl Lang contributed to this

article.

Updated July 7, 1998


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