Disaster memories surface

After responding to disasters for more than 30 years, Martha Zimmerman remembers one disaster most vividly - a tornado that came within half-mile of her home in Turbotville, PA.

BY SUSAN KIM | ARCADIA, FL | September 25, 2004

"Mothers come in and they have these distant looks on their faces."

—Martha Zimmerman

After responding to disasters for more than 30 years, Martha Zimmerman remembers one most vividly - a tornado that came within half-mile of her home in Turbotville, Pennsylvania.

That night Zimmerman was chaperoning a church youth group outing. "We were out in a ball field and the clouds looked terrible," she said. "We went into the church to take shelter."

The wind gusts were so strong they couldn't open the door until the storm passed. "Then we left. I had a 13-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 3-year-old at home. I just wanted to get to them. But the closer we got to home, the worse the damage looked in the neighborhood. Power lines were down all over the place."

Zimmerman made it home, relieved to find out her house had relatively little damage and her children were fine. "But very good friends of ours, who lived in a strong brick house, had the whole top wiped off of their house. If they had been home, lives would have been lost."

On Friday, Zimmerman was at the Pine Chapel, a Mennonite facility on the outskirts of Arcadia, and her memories of worrying about her own children during a disaster come back to her when she sees mothers stop by the comfort station with their children.

"Mothers come in and they have these distant looks on their faces," she said. "Some of them are too shocked to make decisions for themselves."

One mother, who had a 3-month-old baby along with three other children, came by 13 days after Hurricane Charley hit, Zimmerman said. "One of the kids, a 10-year-old boy, just ate and ate and ate. It was probably the first real home-cooked meal he'd had since the storm hit. Then I could hear him saying, 'Mother, Mother, they have baby items in here!'

"Somebody had donated an infant swing, and the mother said she couldn't fit it in her car. But we tied her trunk closed and she took it."

Pine Chapel is home to a new Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) response site. Hurricane Charley completely demolished the church's pavilion, and, on Friday, volunteers coordinated by MDS were constructing, on the foundation that was left, a new dormitory that will house up to 30 volunteers a week for as long as it takes.

Zimmerman has represented MDS during Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and in post-Hurricane Floyd flooding in Princeville, N.C., in 1999. She has worked a tornado response in Sanford, Fla., in 1998, and Hurricane Georges response in Puerto Rico, also in 1998.

She also remembers Hurricane Andrew. "My husband responded there first. He really warned me about how bad the devastation was," she said. "In Homestead, where I was responding, it was like the hurricane just sat there, and ground and ground buildings into the dirt. There was hardly anything left."

Full of expertise, Zimmerman also has a good dose of common sense. "In rural areas, I tell people to take their animals out of the barn during a storm, and take them to an open pasture."

Joyce Nickle, an Arcadia resident who has stopped by to chat, said Hurricane Charley destroyed her son's barn. "The 12-foot steel door took off like a flying saucer," she said. "Then the barn broke up. But the horses ran into an open field and turned their backs to the wind. They all survived."

The piles of rubble still lying on curbsides everywhere in Arcadia are a visible sign that recovery is just beginning - and they also remind Zimmerman a bit of the aftermath of Andrew. "For months after Andrew, people would come home from work every day, and they would have to look at the same piles of rubble, and think 'there lays our belongings.' "

With the multiple storms that have hit, Zimmerman worries about keeping the momentum up on response. MDS is organizing volunteer teams who will help rebuild some of the thousands of damaged homes.

This week, a team of young people - from 15 to 22 years old - have arrived to help clean up debris. "These are a group of conservative Mennonites," said Zimmerman, "and the girls are wearing these long, flowing skirts, and just jumping right in with all this energy and working in the heat."

On Friday alone, people had called from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Canada - all wanting to come help Florida recover, Zimmerman said. "And people need their help," she said. "Some of these houses - you'd think somebody put a bomb in them."

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