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FL town bonds after twister

BY DAVID GORDON | INGLIS, Fla. | October 24, 2002

"Florida has about 10 times as many disasters as most other states."

—Jody Hill

A tornado that damaged or destroyed nearly 50 homes, 10 businesses, and a Baptist youth activity center in the town and surrounding areas Oct. 15 seemed to drop from the sky.

Inglis -- home to 1,241 people -- is located about 50 miles north of Tampa, near the eastern reaches of the state's scenic panhandle, in Levy County. In this part of Florida, religion and faith are a serious and integral part of coping with crisis.

It was Inglis and surrounding communities that bore the brunt of Tropical Storm Alberto and hurricanes Erin and Opal.

But the frequency of disasters in Inglis and other parts of Florida has allowed the state to become an efficient and effective disaster responder, according to Jody Hill, director of Florida Interfaiths Networking in Disasters (FIND).

"Florida has about 10 times as many disasters as most other states," Hill said.

After gathering information to identify people's unmet needs, FIND provides volunteers to help with long-term recovery.

In the case of the relatively weak Inglis tornado, Hill said FIND assisted with debris removal and also helped coordinate local response and relief agencies.

One of those local agencies is the nonprofit Jesus'4 Foundation, headed by Catherine Lawhun.

Lawhun said she remained impressed and almost overwhelmed by the tremendous response by both local agencies and statewide interfaith organizations.

"This girl came be-bopping into my office and said, 'In a way, what is happening is really great because of how much God had done,' " she said. "Even though the tornado had damaged their youth activity center, [the tornado] had caused such an outpouring of support even from people outside their congregation. They were so grateful for the support. You had the Red Cross handing out sandwiches and water and things to the guys from Florida Power, who were on my street all night working, and of course you had the response from Jody [Hill's] organization, and other groups. They were just thrilled, excited, grateful for what the disaster had brought. The assistance was very well-received."

Despite Inglis' relatively small size, Lawhun noted the local fire department, which is all volunteer, was instrumental in galvanizing relief efforts.

"[Local leaders] are very good at motivating everyone, and some even paid for things out of their own pocket," she said. "Inglis is divided into two segments, really: the haves and the have-nots. The haves all live in big houses down by the river, and the have-nots live away from the river."

One of those inland communities, the Northwood Estates Mobile Home Park, was among the hardest hit by last week's storm. Most of those homes sustained at least partial wind damage, local media reported.

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