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'Things are not normal'

The power is coming back on and gas stations are reopening – but a sense of normalcy could take years to return in Florida.

BY SUSAN KIM | FT. PIERCE, Fla. | September 7, 2004

"We are getting set for the long-term response to unmet needs and expect to be at this for at least the next three years."

—Bill Wealand

The power is coming back on and gas stations are reopening – but a sense of normalcy could take years to return in Florida.

“Things are not normal. All our congregations have been altered – and not just the buildings,” said Jim Boler, acting conference minister for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ. “Recovery will take years.”

Rebuilding homes and local businesses – especially damaged small businesses dependent on the agriculture industry – is an enormous process. One in four businesses that shut down due to a disaster never reopen, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Damage to crops translates - in human terms – to serious economic hardship for migrant workers and others employed by agriculture businesses.

Agricultural damages in the wake of Hurricane Frances could have serious immediate and long-term effects, especially on migrant workers and low-income families who depend on citrus and other crops for their living.

At least some agriculture officials said industry damage from Frances could be worse than that of Hurricane Charley, which struck three weeks before Frances.

Three major dairy processing plants in north-central Florida are shut down. Initial reports from the Indian River area of central Florida indicate damage to the citrus industry's facilities, such as fruit storage sheds and other structures. Early assessments indicate that most grapefruit trees appear to have survived, but with substantial loss of the fruit crop.

But how does this affect people? Farm workers whose homes were damaged or lost by one or both hurricanes could face losing their job on top of that. And it's not, for the most part, a community of people able to fall back on their savings.

The short three weeks between hurricanes has made identifying their specific needs more complicated. When Frances occurred, government and voluntary agencies had not yet fully assessed how Hurricane Charley had affected farm workers.

As post-Frances damage assessments began in earnest on Tuesday, the hardest hit areas appeared to be Ft. Pierce, Vero Beach and Satellite Beach, in Florida.

By the weekend, many people will have their power and phone lines back, local emergency management officials said, though Florida's Volusia County and parts of Lake County could be in the dark until next week, Progress Energy officials reported.

"The power companies are doing an incredible job of getting power back up," agreed Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster.

Many residents were allowed home on Tuesday, and more than 33,000 people had already tele-registered with FEMA for Frances-related damages. Some 186,000 people had registered with FEMA to report Charley-related damages.

The extent of flood damage may not be known for a few days, as some rivers were still cresting. "Some homes have been flooded and the rivers are not expected to crest until later in the week. It's still raining," said Hill. "There is a lot of tree damage and a lot of debris on the ground."

Frances has been blamed for at least 10 deaths in Florida. The storm made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane Saturday night in the Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie areas. Structural damage was the worst on Florida's east coast, Hill said.

Meanwhile faith-based disaster response groups were fully resuming relief operations they started in the wake of Hurricane Charley - and expanding them to encompass new needs from Frances.

"We are in the midst of continuing to establish volunteer work group hospitality and deployment centers at five locations," said Bill Wealand, who is representing the United Church of Christ disaster response ministries. "We are getting set for the long-term response to unmet needs and expect to be at this for at least the next three years.

"We will host and deploy volunteer groups from other parts of the country to stretch our donated dollars as far as possible, using the dollars only to buy building materials," he said.

The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) is continuing to process disaster welfare inquiries filed in the wake of Hurricanes Frances and Charley. Over the Labor Day weekend, SATERN operators fielded more than 106 inquiries. SATERN is a HAM radio team that not only helps its onsite volunteers be in touch with the national office, but also helps families find each other.

Church World Service teams were also on the ground in Florida investigating damaged church properties, and also assessing needs of people potentially isolated from federal and voluntary services. Lutheran Disaster Response, Church of the Brethren, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and many other national faith-based disaster response organizations reported they were resuming or expanding a response to both short and long-term needs.

Faith-based and voluntarily groups are simply plowing ahead with Florida response, leaders said, all the while warily watching reports of Hurricane Ivan potentially hitting Florida.

As Wealand concluded: It's a matter of "just keeping on keeping on."

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