Bringing hope to FL

In the face of Florida's great need, faith-based groups are bringing a sense of hope.

BY SUSAN KIM | CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. | August 17, 2004

"We are coordinating volunteers who are out removing debris now but, at the same time, we are working hard to coordinate a long-term recovery."

—Tom Hazelwood

In the face of Florida's great need, faith-based groups are bringing a sense of hope.

Tuesday morning, four days after Charley's landfall, the aftermath is still daunting: 19 people are dead. Some 760,000 people are still without power. Nineteen shelters are open statewide housing 1,991 evacuees. Two special needs shelters are housing 53 evacuees. Ten hospitals were destroyed or damaged across the state. In Charlotte County - a devastated swath - schools will not reopen until the end of this month.

FEMA is still purchasing mobile homes and travel trailers in an attempt to pull together a catastrophic housing plan.

Faith-based groups had the numbers of hope: 48,615 meals were served on Sunday alone from 43 Salvation Army canteens in seven counties throughout the state. And operations continued this week.

And, in the face of what national news media has often portrayed as a chaotic scene, faith-based groups are working to coordinate efforts in a response that combines immediate relief with long-term rebuilding.

Communications were slowly starting to return, and officials from the state and from the FEMA are working closely with faith-based and voluntary agencies. FEMA’s disaster field office will open in Orlando on Wednesday.

Two volunteer reception centers are operating, one in Arcadia and one in Sarasota. A multi-agency relief distribution warehouse opened in Tampa. On Tuesday it was being operated by state and local emergency management officials, but operations will be turned over to Adventist Community Services.

In the initial stages of emergency repair, AmeriCorps teams have been working in partnership with Christian Contractors to provide tarps for homes, particularly those of elderly and disabled people. FEMA sent Christian Contractors three truckloads of tarps and other construction equipment.

Heather Feltman, disaster response director for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), described the mission of LDR - and of the general faith-based response community - in a Tuesday report: "We are working with emergency management authorities, agencies and ecumenical partners to assist in recovery and response planning," she wrote.

Response from faith-based groups currently is a mixture of immediate relief and planning for long-term rebuilding that will help meet needs not addressed by federal or state aid, explained Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "We are coordinating volunteers who are out removing debris now but, at the same time, we are working hard to coordinate a long-term recovery," he said.

Volunteers will have their work cut out for them. The Rev. Thomas Weitzel director of communications for the Florida Syndod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, described the debris: "Mile after mile.  Block after block.  Yard after yard.  Hardly a square inch of ground left uncovered with something – tree limbs, shingles, insulation, downed power lines and poles, pieces of metal, glass, wood, brick, concrete...Walking through this massive debris field, I could only wonder, 'Where does one even start to put it all back together again?' "

The faith community is asking the same earnest question, and, together, coming up with answers. Mennonite Disaster Service has been on the ground in Florida assisting with cleanup for several days. Episcopal Relief and Development was also assisting with emergency relief.

Church World Service (CWS) has issued an emergency appeal to cover the deployment of a team of Disaster Response and Recovery Liaisons (DRRLs) who will work with the faith community and with emergency management officials in Florida.

CWS expects to expand this appeal as additional needs are uncovered in coming weeks and months. CWS reported its focus will be to assist people already vulnerable before the disaster, and that the DRRLs will focus on all areas of Florida affected by the hurricane.

CWS will work closely with Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster, Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and with CWS member denominations.

CWS is prepared to send material resources such as lightweight blankets, personal care kits and cleanup supplies. Convoy of Hope has been sending relief supplies to Florida, with 10 more tractor-trailer loads on the way.

The faith community was also defining both immediate and long-term spiritual care needs. LDR was determining where to deploy spiritual care teams. At the request of both FEMA and the Red Cross, trained volunteer teams from the Church of the Brethren’s Disaster Child Care program were being deployed.

Faith-based response leaders also emphasized that, in the midst of Florida's tragedy, people not forget other areas damaged by Charley. In North Carolina, Hurricane Charley damaged at least 130 Brunswick County homes and left the southern end of North Carolina's coast strewn with debris, emergency management officials said. Oak Island was also hit hard, and officials said 106 houses and structures were damaged there, with many losing a roof.

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