In Panhandle, a miserable wait

Some people wait in line all night for concert tickets or popular books.

BY SUSAN KIM | PENSACOLA, Fla. | October 8, 2004

"One night there was a disturbance in the line and police had to be called."

—Don Weaver

Some people wait in line all night for concert tickets or popular books. In Pensacola, they're waiting in line all night for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, which made landfall Sept. 16.

Outside the East Brent Baptist Church, people begin queuing up outside the doors at 8 p.m. to be first in line when the American Red Cross family service center - housed in the church - opens at 9 a.m. the next morning.

The first 150 people are allowed in, and the rest have to come back another day. Red Cross teams are trying to alleviate the wait by handing out numbers for three or four days ahead.

Inside the church, a Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care team - deployed in agreement with the Red Cross - cares for children of the families waiting to be processed. "We have children in our center for at least five hours," said Don Weaver, a DCC project manager who was deployed to the Florida Panhandle from his home in upstate New York.

The childcare centers offer therapeutic play through activities like painting and modeling clay. DCC volunteers - who undergo in-depth training before deployment - do not ask children direct questions about their post-disaster experience, but they will listen if the kids want to talk.

They also see the stress on families who are waiting - and waiting - to register for relief. "One night there was a disturbance in the line and police had to be called," said Weaver. "A young mother who had been waiting went to her car to be safe - and she lost her place in line. Fortunately there were people who advocated with her and we were able to get her in the process for help."

Unfortunately there's no quick fix for the lines, said David Rudduck, a Red Cross disaster spokesperson who just returned from Pensacola. "We try to minimize the wait," he said, "but lines are a fact of life when it comes to disasters, especially when there is a need this great."

He said, if normally people expect relief services in 72 hours, it seems as if they're expecting services in 72 minutes now. "That horizon and that tolerance grow shorter and shorter as two, three, four hurricanes hit."

There are some hopeful signs in the Panhandle, he added. "Power is coming back on, and that will help alleviate some of the emergency needs," he said.

The day after Ivan's landfall, he said, Pensacola looked like a moonscape. "You wouldn't know you were standing on a street until you looked down at your feet, and there was a mailbox sticking out of the sand."

Some of Pensacola's long lines might be because the area is densely populated. Pensacola - home to more than 56,000 people - also took nearly a direct hit from Ivan as the Category 3 storm slammed into coastal Alabama and Florida.

"I don't remember lines that long in North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Floyd," said George Strunk of Lutheran Disaster Response, who helped coordinate long-term recovery in the wake of Floyd, a 1999 storm that was blamed for more than 40 deaths and $1 billion in losses, much due to flooding.

"But much of the flooding in North Carolina in the wake of Floyd was in more rural areas or in small towns. Pensacola is more densely populated," he said.

Strunk, who has been helping with relief efforts in western North Carolina - an area hit hard by Ivan's remnants - said mountainous and rural areas face their own post-disaster burdens, even if relief lines aren't as long. "In one area there is a 30-mile detour around a road that's not going to be repaired for a long time," he said. "I always think of families having to take their kids to school through that."

And sometimes it's a matter of deploying relief staff where they're needed - and that's a lot of places these days. "For the first time in my career, I have eight Disaster Child Care centers open in three different states - Alabama, Florida, and Virginia," said Helen Stonesifer, who coordinators the DCC program.

Weaver added that it's the heartwarming moments that boost the spirits of responders and residents alike. "There is an angel in the church kitchen that makes up peanut butter - and even plain jelly - sandwiches for our children, so they are well taken care of."

The DCC team - seeing the stress of the waiting families and kids - has grown closer together, he said. "Our team is unbelievable. For a group of nine persons who did not know each other a week ago, we have become one, and are great at anticipating needs of children and sharing gifts in ever so many ways."

It's an ecumenical effort, pointed out Weaver, a United Methodist pastor. "There are United Methodists working with the Church of the Brethren, working in a Baptist church - under the mental health umbrella of the American Red Cross."

If people are waiting in long lines for emergency relief, that means many of them will also need long-term support, said Weaver. Often faith-based disaster response groups stay at a post-disaster site for years rebuilding homes, long after emergency responders have left the scene. "We know that there will be many people who will fall through the cracks and we know that the faith community will be there for them because we are one in the spirit - the spirit of a living and loving God," he said.

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