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Long FL rebuild expected

After riding out Hurricane Charley in the walk-in closet of his home, Pastor Steve Mock made his way to his church in Punta Gorda.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PUNTA GORDA, Fla. | August 19, 2004

"The pastors are frustrated that they can't keep in touch with their whole congregations."

—Jim Kirk

After riding out Hurricane Charley in the walk-in closet of his home, Pastor Steve Mock made his way to his church in Punta Gorda. When he arrived, he couldn't believe what he saw.

"It was mind-boggling coming around the corner expecting to see the A-frame of the church - but it was gone," he said. First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda suffered significant damage. The force of Charley had collapsed most of the sanctuary roof and blown out many of the windows.

Punta Gorda took a direct hit from Hurricane Charley. Hundreds of homes and businesses were leveled. The city has no power and communication is extremely difficult. Mock said he's worried because he hasn't had the ability to check in on all of his parishioners yet. He said most of them live in Punta Gorda Isles, the hardest hit section of the city.

Those parishioners that had seen the severely damaged church were shaken. "Many were real broken up," said Mock.

First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda is part of the Peace River Presbytery. This week, the presbytery surveyed damages to its churches that were in Charley's path. In Port Charlotte, the church suffered major roof and water damage. Another Presbyterian church in Punta Gorda also experienced major roof damage. Arcadia's First Presbyterian Church suffered a damaged steeple and lost many of its stained glass windows. Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral has major roof damage. The status of Chapel by the Sea in Ft. Myers Beach is unknown because access to that area had been restricted until Wednesday.

Not only did the churches suffer damages, but also the pastors' homes as well. Several had serious roof damage, and others lost entire rooms.

Presbytery officials are noticing that frustrations amongst affected residents are starting to surface. "This is very overwhelming for residents," said Graham Hart, general presbyter of the Peace River Presbytery. "Everywhere they go, they must wait in lines. There is a complexity in all this - a sort of 'where do you start?' mentality."

Peace River Presbytery started Tuesday evening by holding an initial recovery meeting. A task force was created to help organize the recovery efforts. And already, offers to help from other presbyteries across Florida and the country are coming in.

"Everyone is being so generous and responsive," said Jim Kirk, co-chair of the task force and disaster response coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). He said work teams are volunteering already, but the hard part now is coordinating where the repairs need to be done. Kirk said the task force is also trying to set up door-to-door teams that will check in on residents and do assessments.

One of the first major efforts, according to task force co-chair Bruce Wismer, is to get the daycare center in the Port Charlotte church repaired. "We think that will help the community a lot," he said. "Knowing they can take their kids somewhere reliable while they do work will be very helpful."

Peace River Presbytery and the task force are also trying to take care of the pastors of the damaged churches. "The pastors are frustrated that they can't keep in touch with their whole congregations," said Kirk. "And they're trying to board up their own homes while caring for everyone else."

The task force is also getting another helpful hand from Larry Graham-Johnson, a PDA coordinator from Pompano Beach who directed cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Andrew. Graham-Johnson said every disaster is unique, but he's ready to assist the task force with the Charley recovery.

"We come in and consult, give information (to disaster task forces) on what to expect, let them know the initial steps to take, help them network, and then also act as a channel for donations," he said. "Right now we're trying to meet the immediate needs."

PDA and the task force are paying close attention to the demographics of the affected areas. Many are elderly, and there are also large communities of migrant workers. "There is some concern about these mobile home communities located out amongst all the farmland," said Wismer. "Where are they now? Is anyone helping them? There will be some unmet needs there for awhile."

Graham-Johnson agreed. Like Hurricane Andrew, he said the overall scope of this disaster won't be known for months. Many will either be minimally insured or not insured at all, and he said that's where the faith-based relief groups come in. "When everyone else packs it in and leaves, there will still be damage," said Graham-Johnson. "And we'll still be here."

Wismer added that they intend to watch the stress levels of families over time as well - especially in the children.

Kirk ad Wismer said the task force is glad to have the help of Graham-Johnson. "I'm so moved by the skill of all agencies involved. In the midst of this tragedy, all these folks are just wonderful people," he said of all the relief groups he's seen on the ground so far. "This gives you a good sense that people care for each other deeply."

Many initial steps for the task force were mapped out Tuesday night. Work crews from churches in non-affected regions will move in to help cleanup debris and put tarps on roofs. Some regional church pastors will also come in to help the affected churches go door-to-door checking in on parishioners.

For Pastor Mock of First Presbyterian Church in Punta Gorda, that will be very helpful. "Only time will tell what's in store for us," he said. "We have a great bunch of people at our church, and they're all dealing with loss. Our focus now will be on rebuilding."

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Related Links:

Peace River Presbytery Web site

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