‘This operation is incredible'

Hurricane Charley devastated Arcadia, FL.

BY HEATHER MOYER | Arcadia, Fla. | August 19, 2004

"I remember my husband and I being glad that we had no damage, but then we said 'oh my, we have to help everyone else!"

—Karen Dakin

Piles of rubble sit where buildings once stood. Nearly every tree is on its side, with branches ripped from trunks and lodged in houses. Homes are missing roofs, walls, porches, and windows. Storm debris is everywhere.

Amidst the debris stands Trinity United Methodist Church, which suffered only minimal damages. Due to its fortune, it now serves as a major command center offering food, supplies, and support to the residents of this Florida town.

"We started off just handing out water, and it mushroomed from there," said David Harris, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church. The church is so busy, Harris keeps looking for a place to stand to take it all in.

Out front, a line of people are gathered at the meal table where volunteers hand out hamburgers, baked beans, hot dogs, and cold water. Downstairs, a huge room of donated food and supplies is staffed by other volunteers. Residents can stop by to pick up what they need. Harris added that they even have construction crews out in the city helping people secure roofs and make sure people are at least in dry homes for the time being.

"This operation is incredible, it's amazing what the Lord can do," he said.

This Saturday the church is hosting a huge block party. Harris said they'll have music, food, and other fun to let residents just get away and have fun for a bit. That same day, some 80 more builders are expected to come in as well. They'll be sent out into the community as well to secure roofs and help where they can.

Harris said the damage around Arcadia is stunning. Trinity itself served as a shelter the night Charley came through, with about 80 people staying over. Many of the church's parishioners suffered significant home damage, yet a check around the halls of Trinity finds many of them lending a hand to their neighbors.

That check also finds many a volunteer from surrounding communities. Karen Dakin is a nearby dairy farmer who's stopped into the church to offer her services. The hurricane spared her farm. "I remember my husband and I being glad that we had no damage, but then we said 'oh my gosh, we have to help everyone else!'" she explained.

Dakin said God took care of everything else. "God is providing - it's amazing," she said with a big smile. "Every need there is has been met so far."

Harris said Dakin is serving as part of team that's going out into Arcadia to give supplies to residents who cannot leave their homes. They're also targeting some of the more impoverished areas of the community. "A disaster accentuates that situation," he said.

Over in the food donations room, 17-year-old Victoria Wyas is moving boxes of cereal. A resident of Arcadia, she took shelter in the church when Hurricane Charley rolled into town. "It was pretty scary, the wind was blowing really hard," she said. "So many of the trailer parks were leveled."

Wyas said the generosity of volunteers amazed her as well. Pointing to all the food in the room, she explained. "All this food in here now is new today," she said. "We gave out a room-full already, and then more food keeps coming in. It's amazing."

Fellow volunteer Jane Warrelmann of Sarasota shared Wyas' feelings. "People are incredible. Everyone is putting their lives on hold to help," Warrelman said.

The needs will be long-term in Arcadia. "The devastation is phenomenal," said Harris. He's unsure of the scale of the other city churches' response, but he knows several are doing relief work as well.

"We're blessed," he said. "It's been great to see what the Lord's doing."

’This community has been great’

Just down the road, members of the Myakka City United Methodist Church were happy to see the generators arrive Tuesday. With temperatures in the area reaching 100 degrees, anything to help folks in a city without power was welcomed.

When Hurricane Charley rolled over the small rural town, the high winds downed trees, damaged roofs, and destroyed numerous farming outbuildings. And as in all the other towns the storm hit, power lines were brought down as well.

Volunteers bustling about the Myakka City Methodist Church all took turns pausing for a moment in front of the large fan as they unloaded donations from a truck. The church has been serving meals, handing out food, and doing whatever else they can to assist affected families. The church’s pastor, Chet Zarzicki, said the community spirit has been fantastic.

“We’ve had calls coming in from churches all over the state asking how they can help,” he said, standing in front of several tables loaded full of donated food. “And then this community has been great. People I don’t even know have been stopping by and donating items.”

And even with all the help coming in, Zarzicki said his town isn’t that bad off after Charley’s wrath – he’s been sending some of the offered national church help on down the road to the city of Arcadia. “We’re just inconvenienced here, they need the help down there,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Zarzicki and the volunteers aren’t addressing the needs of Myakka City. All the local churches have been coordinating their efforts as well. “We figured we all read the same Bible, we can all work together,” he laughed. “This is just church people taking care of each other.”

The church leaders are setting up a relief fund and hope to first assist families with immediate needs. He said people need help running their generators, as access to gas is limited and using so much can get very expensive. Later, Zarzicki added, the church coalition will focus on long-term needs such as roof repairs.

The real controversy in Myakka City is the uproar over city officials not allowing residents to use the brand new elementary school as a shelter the night Charley hit. Volunteers around the Myakka City Methodist Church all shook their heads when discussing the issue.

“Some folks were able to evacuate to other relatives’ homes, yet many had nowhere to go,” said Nancy Ness, member of the church. “The closest shelter was 20 miles away. People can’t do that – not many had the fuel to travel.”

The school is to be opened for use Thursday, according to Ness, so at least people will be able to stop in to take a break from the heat or take a shower. She added that a public meeting will be held Thursday night, and she was sure folks would make their complaints heard to city officials.

“They better hope there’s air in there, because everyone’s already hot,” she laughed.

The volunteers at the churches in Myakka City will keep working, though. They’ve already served hundreds of meals and expect to continue that as time goes by. They don’t know when they’ll have power again.

Zarzicki is not worried, just focused. “Everybody’s helping,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “We’re okay, we just need to be prayed for.”

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