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'There are no questions asked'

The Citgo gas station may have closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, but it was still a popular place in this rural Florida burg.

BY P.J. HELLER | ONA, Fla. | August 21, 2004

"The people here are very community oriented. Everybody knows everybody. Everyone helps everybody."

—Gloria Jameson, postmaster

The Citgo gas station may have been closed here in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, but it was still the most popular place in this rural central Florida burg.

Throughout the day, a steady stream of cars and trucks pulled into the gas station, which was turned into an outdoor makeshift recovery center for area residents.

Volunteers continually arrived to replenish supplies of food, water and household goods for hurricane survivors. There were stacks of relief supplies for people to sift through. National Guardsmen handed out bags of ice stacked in a Federal Express truck.

With electricity still off to thousands of residents throughout central Florida and with temperatures in the 90s, ice and water have become precious commodities.

A Salvation Army feeding station provided beverages and meals to those stopping by the station to collect much needed food and other essentials.

Church World Service and its many faith-based partner organizations have been focusing on identifying and meeting the needs of communities like this.

For area residents — including those who came from nearby Wauchula and other communities — the recovery operation was a welcome sight in this town of about 3,000 people. The town itself consists of the gas station/convenience store, a post office and another store. A few other “small country stores” are also in the area.

On Friday, the only thing open was the post office, which was beginning to fill up with furniture and other goods donated to aid people affected by the storm. The post office lobby is open at night, so people could still come by and get the relief supplies they might need.

Much of the town’s population is migrant workers who work at local cattle ranches, farms and groves, according to Postmaster Gloria Jameson. Most of the migrants were working in the area when the storm hit, she said.

“It’s a very, very destitute community,” Jameson said. “The hurricane was totally devastating.”

Jameson lives several miles away in Wauchula, another community hard hit by the hurricane. She has been in the area for 11 years.

“The people here (in Ona) are very community oriented,” she noted. “Everybody knows everybody. Everyone helps everybody.”

While relief was initially a little slow in coming — Jameson says that was probably due to the fact that communities with larger populations needed to be served first — it has been welcomed.

“To see the relief that has come through here is totally amazing and heartwarming,” she said.

That help has come from various sources, including The Salvation Army, other faith-based organizations, communities around Florida, and individuals who want to help.

Such help may be particularly needed by the migrant workers here, many of whom live four and five families to a home or mobile home, Jameson said. She noted that many of their homes were destroyed when Charley slammed into Florida on Aug. 13 with 145-mph winds.

“On the good side, there have been very few deaths at this point,” she said. “At least most people were smart enough to get out of the homes and trailers where they were staying.”

Some of the workers are being housed in shelters while one of the few stores in town was also putting up a few people up in the back of the business, she said.

Jameson said that while documented workers were taking advantage of the relief supplies, undocumented workers have kept a low profile, likely for fear of coming to the attention of government officials. Exactly how many illegal aliens may be in the area was not known.

“We are not seeing those people,” Jameson said, adding that outreach efforts were being made.

“We’re getting the word out and I’m telling my people to please tell everyone they know that we do not care whether you’re a legal or illegal immigrant. We do not care. We want you alive. Please come to the post office or the Citgo. There are no questions asked. Come take what you need,” she said.

“We’re asking that they please do come,” Jameson added. “We do want them to be provided for.”

Electricity was still off in the town one week after Charley hit the area. Telephone service was just starting to work again on Friday.

Jameson said damage from Charley in the Ona area may be difficult to see because so many homes are in the countryside. The post office, she noted, covers a 112 mile rural route.

And in true post office tradition, the mail has, for the most part, continued to get through.

“We did miss Saturday (the day after the hurricane) because the roads were not even traversible, but Monday we were back to work as always and serving our people,” Jameson said. “They were quite surprised to see us here.”

Jameson said she was gratified by the help the little town was receiving.

“We have had so much assistance from everybody it has been truly amazing, really truly amazing,” she said. “Everybody has just been wonderful.”

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