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Hundreds still homeless

Pastor David Neumann has a way of consoling his parishioners.


"The saddest thing is that some folks have already packed up what they could and moved away."

—Pastor David Neumann

Pastor David Neumann has a way of consoling his parishioners in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley.

"I tell them we're on that Saturday between Good Friday and Easter," said Neumann as he stood in front of his damaged Port Charlotte church. "We've got one foot in each day, and soon we'll be at Sunday. We'll rebuild and we'll make it."

Monday morning at Pilgrim United Church of Christ (UCC), volunteers are moving about under the hot sun. One volunteer is saving several downed trees by propping them up again with ropes. Two women are leading a small train of children around a playground, signs of the newly reopened Pilgrim UCC preschool.

Hurricane Charley damaged the church's sanctuary, blowing out several windows and tearing up a section of the roof. Neumann said they are fairly sure the entire roof will need to be redone. The rest of the church's buildings only suffered minor damage, which in turn made its large fellowship hall into a busy shelter and recovery center for the area.

"Our church was the special needs shelter for Charlotte County for the first two nights (after the storm)," explained Neumann. "After those folks were transferred out of here, we still had people coming in from off the street, so we stayed open. We've been the only shelter open ever since in Port Charlotte."

Hundreds of people are homeless in the city, he said. Across the street and next to the church are two trailer parks, both riddled with severe damage. "We have many parishioners who live in those parks," Neumann said. "The saddest thing is that some folks have already packed up what they could and moved away. I know more will do that as well, but right now we're still trying to locate everyone."

All of Pilgrim UCC's members suffered damage of some type, according to Neumann. The big issue now, he said, is the lack of electricity. With the harsh August heat, many who cannot get to cooler conditions are prone to heat illnesses.

But the help is rolling in. The church's shelter, run in cooperation with the American Red Cross, is full of donated food, beds for people to sleep on, and crowds of volunteers from near and far. Other UCC congregations are calling from all over to see how they can help. A team of volunteers from Maryland and California came to assist the teams going door-to-door in the community. The last church Neumann served even sent a donation.

"The community and church folks are all helping so much," Neumann said. "It's been wonderful."

In a time when many volunteers are local folks with their own damaged homes to attend to, Neumann said he thinks it's even more helpful to have folks from outside the region be present. "People here are so stressed and overwhelmed, but you just do what you have to do."

Across Florida, some 13 UCC congregations suffered damages to their church buildings. UCC Florida Disaster Response Coordinator Bill Wealand said he's been checking in with all the pastors. An ecumenical 800-number is now set up in the local conference office for people to call with their needs.

Assistance is rolling in for the UCC and Wealand, who said 237 modular homes were just donated. "We'll be using these in Charlotte and Polk counties as both housing for volunteers and affected residents," he said, adding that volunteer groups from all over the country are already signing up to come down. "We're going to be in the recovery and rehab work for the long haul."

Several churches have already voiced their enthusiasm for having some of the modular homes set up on their grounds to house the incoming volunteers.

Wealand said the pastors of the affected churches are in a state of shock and adrenaline at this point in time. "All of us are worried for them and we have offered substitutes to them if they need a break," he explained. "We're also offering counseling if needed, but many pastors are saying their churches need them right now. It might take a little more time before they decide to utilize the help we've offered."

Back at Pilgrim UCC in Port Charlotte, church member Dawn Koehler is smiling in the shelter. "We've gotten to know all these folks so well, we've become one big family," she said, pausing for a moment at a table loaded with canned goods. "We're touching not just lives here, but hearts."

Koehler is leading the charge around the shelter, helping make sure people have what they need and that volunteers are in the right places. She's seen the emotions and reactions of affected residents firsthand. "I've had so many people say that they never had faith before this, but that they've found it now," she explained. "We want to make sure we meet all the needs here, especially the spiritual ones."

Many people who visit the shelter just need a listening ear, she added. "They just need to share. And after they share their stories over and over, it's like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. They start moving around the shelter more and you see their personalities starting to come out."

The shelter has movie nights, game nights, and other times for everyone to gather together in fellowship. The church's youth group is also very active in the disaster response, with many of the youths both going door-to-door with supplies and adopting the senior citizens in the shelter. Koehler said that bond between the elderly and the young has been extremely beneficial to all involved.

"People want to know why God allowed the hurricane to happen, but I say that good things will come from it," said Koehler. "And now more people are saying that they're seeing the good come out of it all."

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