Thousands homeless

Thousands people in Florida are homeless in the wake of Hurricane Charley's wrath.

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

"Collectively, the faith community brings years of training and experience, sophisticated equipment, compassion for vulnerable people, and, most important, the ability to work together across faith traditions."

—Linda Reed Brown

Thousands of people in Florida are homeless in the wake of Hurricane Charley's wrath, said a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official on Saturday afternoon.

"We are formulating a catastrophic housing plan," he said, "and we are looking for large buildings that are vacant."

And finding housing will become more urgent as more tropical storms and depressions are on the horizon, he added. "We don't want to put people in tents."

At least 250,000 more structures are damaged, he added.

FEMA officials and members of Florida's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) are working together to assess the devastating damages and pressing needs as search-and-rescue continued in the hardest hit areas. At least 15 people were confirmed dead by Saturday afternoon but that number was likely to grow over the next two days, said local officials.

Hurricane Charley struck Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and Fort Myers with 145 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge. Some 228 public shelters were still open Saturday evening with 47,458 evacuees. In addition, 59 special needs shelters were opened with 3,119 evacuees.

By Sunday morning, 25 counties had been declared presidential disaster areas.

About 1.1 million Floridians had no power on Saturday afternoon. Eighty percent of the buildings in Charlotte County were damaged, according to FEMA.

As local emergency crews went into severely damaged areas, the National Organization for Victim Assistance was offering crisis support and intervention for first responders.

"We are also identifying clergy who have crisis intervention experience or who would like training," said Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster.

Most of the fatalities occurred in hard-hit Charlotte County, said a FEMA official.

A massive coordination effort is emerging among faith-based and voluntary groups.

"Collectively, the faith community brings years of training and experience, sophisticated equipment, compassion for vulnerable people, and, most important, the ability to work together across faith traditions," said Linda Reed Brown, associate director of domestic response for the Church World Service Emergency Response Program.

The Salvation Army was pooling its national, regional and local resources to operate throughout Florida and the eastern states affected by the devastation left by Hurricane Charley.

In a Saturday report, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee - one of many denominational groups planning to respond to people's needs - described its aim in Florida. "CRWRC-Disaster Response Services is putting together an all-out effort to mobilize volunteer teams that, after the search-and-rescue phase is over, can go into the effected areas of Florida to help with the clean-up effort," reported CRWRC.

Week of Compassion, administered through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) reported it is in contact with the Disciples regional office in Florida, as well as regional offices in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

In addition to housing, there will be many unmet needs among Florida communities that have a wide variety of cultures and languages. Florida also has a high population of elderly people, and hundreds of thousands could be affected by the storm, whether in terms of property damage or emotional trauma.

The damage is so severe in some areas it looks more like tornado damage than hurricane damage, observed Hill. "There are a whole lot of moderate houses and mobile homes. Charley hit some low-income areas."

Faith-based and voluntary groups will be helping coordinate volunteers who can assist with needs such as cleanup and home repairs.

The Florida VOAD was also coordinating warehouse space for distributing hurricane relief items.

The American Red Cross was planning to distribute brochures with tips for people whose power is out..

And, already, many organizations were getting calls from people who want to help.

But the most severely damaged areas simply weren't accessible, pointed out Hill. "Those areas are restricted because they are still doing search-and-rescue. Plus there are downed power lines and the areas simply aren't safe. We may need to give them a few more days."

There are some requests for clergy assistance, said Hill, "but the question is how to deal with some credentialing."

At least in the Lee County area, clergy have already been working closely with emergency management officials. In that county, there are 60 clergy working cooperatively with emergency management in a partnership that was set up before Charley hit.

Outside of restricted areas, said Hill, "there are lots of opportunities to get in and help people get debris away from their homes."

It is imperative that volunteers who want to help in Florida work with a responding organization that knows what the needs are. Volunteers should not travel to Florida solo and expect to find housing.

Hill urged the faith community to reach out to others in whatever way they can. "Tomorrow is Sunday, and it's an important time for them to be a visible presence."

National faith-based disaster response groups - including Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Church of the Brethren, and many others - were both assessing damages to sanctuaries, and also identifying churches that could possibly serve as comfort stations.

Leaders of faith-based and voluntary groups said they were determined to bring caring hands to Florida in a way that doesn't further burden already-stricken communities.

"Churches that are not damaged could be important focal points in their communities, offering not only flood relief items but spiritual care and a sense of hope," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee On Relief.

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