Relief stage 'frantic' in FL

Jeff Ramsland, now worried about Jeanne, focuses on meeting burgeoning emergency needs in FL.

BY SUSAN KIM | WAUCHULA, FL | September 24, 2004

"The job market was terrible in Hardee County before the hurricanes. Now it's horrendous."

—Jeff Ramsland

While the fourth hurricane to threaten Florida this hurricane season looms in the Atlantic, Jeff Ramsland is focused on meeting emergency needs that have burgeoned since the first hurricane hit last month.

Ramsland, executive director of the Hardee Help Center - in central Florida's diverse Hardee County - is beginning to wonder how long the disasters will keep going before they stop. And many of the 50 families he helps every day are wondering the same thing as they stop by the center for emergency food, clothing, funds, household items, and referrals to other services they need.

"How long will we be in disaster relief mode?" Ramsland asked nobody in particular. "The stage we're in right now - it's frantic. It's constant."

Funded by the Hardee County Ministerial Association - which encompasses more than 10 denominations, including The Salvation Army and Faith Presbyterian Church - the help center also receives financial support from United Way.

A check from the Mikasuki Indian Tribe was one of the first contributions in the wake of Hurricane Charley, Ramsland added, and the help center is supported by local businesses, too.

It's a ministry that ignites people's compassion when they walk into an office space that's packed with people determined to make ends meet, and volunteers determined to help them not to mention canned food, household goods, and constantly ringing phones.

On Thursday, two new interns from Southeastern College both future social workers - arrive. They get college credit for their stint here, and, by 5 p.m., they've helped at least 30 families understand what the center has to offer.

"Ten Haitians came in today, and we had trouble understanding them," said intern Erika Hunter. "But we found an interpreter by telephone, and we opened up the communication that way."

Ramsland stops them at the end of their busy day to commend their work. "You jumped right in," he says. "Baptism by fire."

Ramsland - involved in disaster relief for the first time though he's been running the help center for four years - has had his own baptism by fire the past several weeks. While the phones ring around him, he's ticking off a list of what he needs to do: "We need to organize a local recovery committee. We need to get more funding. We need to arrange warehousing. And we need to set up worksites.

I'd like to see six, eight, 10 worksites going on."

Mennonite Disaster Service teams will partner with the help center to bring teams to the area.

Some 1,400 homes were destroyed in Hardee County, and residents in the city of Wauchula went without drinking water for three weeks after Charley struck. But those numbers belie the needs in neighborhoods where people's problems before Hurricane Charley have been unbelievably compounded. "The job market was terrible in Hardee County before the hurricanes," said Ramsland. "Now it's horrendous.

"Businesses literally got crushed," he said. "People who worked at local restaurants - Subway, KFC - they don't have jobs anymore. We have one girl who volunteers here who drives 45 minutes to work maybe 10 hours a week at a KFC."

And, job-wise, it could get even worse, he said, because the impact on people employed by the agriculture industry is still unfolding. "All the citrus is on the ground. We haven't begun to realize the impact of that. All the citrus workers will start coming. They will start arriving. It's a dilemma that will unfold over the next few months."

But dilemmas are something Ramsland helps people get out of. Before Hurricane Charley hit, there were many people in this neighborhood living on the financial edge. "There is a single mom, with three kids whose husband gets incarcerated. So she's not getting child support. She works maybe 30 hours a week," said Ramsland, "and she can't pay her electrical bill. She might come in here to get the economic assistance she needs."

Florida's new disasters have brought a new tidal wave of problems for people. "You think you know what people are dealing with but this is a whole new side."

The Hardee Help Center is trying to meet people's needs, Ramsland said - but he added he could use some help. "I'm still in high gear. I'm getting a little weary but the Lord just holds us up. We've had to be real creative."

The Salvation Army recently provided a caseworker for the help center, and another part-time caseworker funded by the Workforce Investment Act will soon arrive. Before this help. But both these are temporary, and before they came Ramsland was doing the casework himself.

Hes is the first to admit he's just one person - and he has a wife and three kids, ages 15, 22 and 25 - that he wants to spend time with, too. "I can't do it all," he admitted. "I can't."

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