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Relief flows in Charley's wake

Hurricane Charley killed at least 15 people in Florida, and many were missing Saturday as search-and-rescue continued.

BY SUSAN KIM | SARASOTA, Fla. | August 14, 2004

Hurricane Charley killed at least 15 people in Florida, and many were still missing Saturday afternoon as search-and-rescue continued in earnest.

At least some of the deaths were at a mobile home park in Charlotte County that was nearly destroyed. Officials said it may take several days to get a final death toll. Search-and-rescue continued Saturday morning. The federal government was sending a 25-member mortuary team.

The community of Punta Gorda - home to 15,000 - was devastated when Charley's eye passed directly over the town. Hundreds of people were missing in Charlotte County and thousands were homeless. Three hospitals in Charlotte County sustained significant damage, and officials said they were evacuating patients from the Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda on Saturday. There are 31 mobile home parks in the county that suffered major damage, some with more than 1,000 units, county officials were estimating Saturday morning.

More than 8 percent of people in Charlotte County live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.

An estimated 1.3 million homes and businesses were without power across the state on Saturday morning, as a slightly weaker Charley was bearing down the South Carolina coast. On Friday, Charley crossed from southwest Florida to the Atlantic Coast at Daytona Beach.

President Bush declared parts of Florida a federal disaster area, making federal money available to at least 20 counties.

And by Saturday morning, faith-based response groups were in the throes of emergency response and were already making plans for long-term recovery.

Florida's Gulf Coast communities saw a 15-foot storm surge. Charley's eye reached land at 3:45 p.m. when it passed over the barrier islands between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, then crossed toward Orlando.

Almost 2 million people evacuated before the storm.

Disaster relief groups were moving equipment and personnel into the hardest hit areas, and waiting for more damage assessments to roll in.

Salvation Army crews set up a main staging area for relief operations, which kicked into full gear immediately after Charley blew through. The units include all crews in Florida - and possibly those from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia as well.

The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), a coalition of amateur radio operators, was also activated.

Florida Baptist Disaster Relief was out doing initial damage assessments across the state, and had activated all its cleanup units. Florida Baptist Disaster Relief was setting up a command center in Northport. "There are feeding units being activated across the country from as far away as Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio," said Fritz Wilson, state disaster director.

Members of the Florida state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) coalition were meeting via call over the weekend. Preliminary plans were being made to establish a multi-agency warehouse in the affected area.

National faith-based disaster response organizations were supporting their Florida coordinators, and many national representatives from a variety of denominations were en route to Florida to help support local efforts.

Bill Wealand of the United Church of Christ's (UCC) National Disaster Ministries Network, said damage assessments will begin Saturday morning. "Two emergency generators are in place at churches located in the most affected areas," he said.

Three trained UCC coordinators were planning to work with state and federal officials to assess damages, and use those figures to formulate a long-term response, said Wealand.

Thousands of people were in the storm's path, and, after emergency response ends, many of them will be left with long-term unmet needs.

"There's a huge population there that's low-to-moderate income, including lots of mobile homes," said Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster.

In addition, some 700,000 elderly people were potentially in the storm's path.

Lesli Remaly, a CWS Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison, was already thinking about needs that could potentially go unnoticed. "There are lots of immigrants and migrant farm workers. There is a tremendous population of people working on the orange groves. There are Native Americans who will be affected."

People who can't speak English may not able to easily determine what aid is available to them, Remaly added.

In the long-term, people who have jobs in the service or tourism industry could see a tremendous negative economic impact, she said.

Homeless people were another population that could easily be forgotten, Remaly said. "Lots of people come to Florida hoping they'll find that job, and they don't."

Other Florida VOAD members pointed out that Creole communities and HIV-infected individuals might also have special needs in Charley's wake.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) was also monitoring the situation and preparing to help address long-term needs. Through its network of volunteers, CRWRC's Disaster Response Services helps disaster-stricken communities with cleanup, needs assessments, reconstruction and long-term community development and recovery.

Lutheran Disaster Response and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) were also planning for a long-term response, as was Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

UMCOR has sent all available flood buckets to Florida and UMCOR leaders urged United Methodists to pray for those in the paths of this week's storms. A disaster response team will arrive in Florida on Monday for initial assessments.

Nazarene Disaster Response was setting up distribution centers in local Nazarene churches in the Ft. Myers, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, Orlando and Apopka areas, where care kits will be given to hurricane survivors, said Jim Morsch. "We also have a chain saw crew on standby to assist those homes that have fallen trees," he reported.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was activated at the request of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. HSUS offers emergency search and rescue of animals, including pets, horses, livestock and wildlife, as well as assessment of animal-related needs from natural or other events.

The National Organization for Victim Assistance also stood ready to respond.

As news of Hurricane Charley's landfall made national headlines, many people across the U.S. were already wondering how best to help. "The best way to help is to make a cash donation to your denomination's disaster response fund," said Linda Reed Brown, associate director of domestic response for the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response Program. "These funds will support the recovery efforts of local churches and local communities."

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials agreed with Brown, adding that people should avoid sending material goods such as used clothing. "Please don't drive to Florida from out of state and try to help," said one FEMA official. "Instead," he said, "work with voluntary organizations that coordinate and train volunteers, then match them to people's needs."

Florida state officials echoed FEMA's stance by emphasizing that cash donations help to avoid the labor and expense of sorting, packing, transporting and distributing donated goods; and that voluntary relief agencies use cash to meet people's specific needs more quickly.

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