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FL recovery will take years

Federal and voluntary organizations see lengthy effort to rebuild following 2004 hurricanes.

BY SUSAN KIM | ORLANDO | November 12, 2004

"It's our challenge to think beyond the FEMA deadlines. . . and what we're after are permanent solutions"

—Lesli Remaly

The hub of federal hurricane response in Florida has some surprisingly light touches.

The hallways are named after hurricanes - Bonnie Lane and Ivan Hall - and thank-you notes from hurricane survivors have been enlarged and plastered on the walls. There are photos of destroyed homes and rebuilt ones. There are T-shirts for sale. And the administrative section's theme song has been written to the tune of "Gilligan's Island."

But the 1,300 people stationed in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Disaster Field Office (DFO) have a serious mission: to help hurricane survivors start the recovery process.

There are an additional 4,500 or so FEMA employees in the field, said one FEMA official, and the DFO could be open for another three years.

"This is the largest DFO I've worked in by far," said the veteran disaster responder who was not allowed to be identified by name. But, he said, it's not uncommon for DFOs to remain open long after people think response has ended.

And that's where the work of faith-based and voluntary agencies dovetails on FEMA's work - the long-term recovery is only just beginning, just when news of the hurricanes has faded from national headlines.

Faith-based and voluntary organizations are highlighted at the DFO, with logos from dozens of groups covering an entire wall. Federal officials have compiled what will be a 500-page report that details responding agencies, their resources, and contacts.

Right now, FEMA's priority is to get disaster survivors into homes, said a FEMA official, but he admitted that, like many efforts recently, it's been colored by politics.

"There was such a push before the election to get people into houses that we don't even know who's in some of them," he said.

Long after FEMA checks have been issued, people with unmet needs often turn to faith-based groups, said Lesli Remaly, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster response and recovery liaison (DRRL). CWS, among many other faith-based groups, has been assessing needs and mapping out a long-term recovery in Florida that could take years.

"It's our challenge to think beyond the FEMA deadlines," said Remaly, "and what we're after are permanent solutions - rebuilding homes and rehabilitating trailers."

Stricter building codes will help people build safer structures, she said, but many older mobile homes will have to be condemned, while newer ones can be retrofitted and meet code.

As of Nov. 11, more than 1.1 million people in Florida had registered for FEMA aid.

But it's the people who "fall through the cracks" that is worrying FEMA and response organizations alike. Even with a record-breaking number of FEMA registrations, they know there are thousands of people who aren't getting the aid they need.

This season's hurricanes have had a tremendous agricultural and economic impact on Florida that is still unfolding. Hundreds of small citrus growers are out of business. There was at least a 20% loss in Florida's citrus crops. And the impact hit three counties particularly hard: some 25,000 farm and citrus industry workers in Hardee, DeSoto and Polk counties lost 75% of their crops.

Three-quarters of the farm-industry workforce in Florida are migrants from South America, Mexico and Caribbean islands.

Many communities have been identified as poor and isolated with limited resources for recovery and have special needs related to children and elderly people, language, and limited or unavailable housing.

Nearly one quarter of the estimated adversely affected residents in the southeastern Gulf States and Florida are persons aged 65 or older.

Remaly and other CWS DRRLs have been on site since the first hurricane made landfall and continue working with responders in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, West Virginia and other states.

Florida's migrant workers, ethnic communities and ethnic people may be less likely to register for federal aid - even though they may be eligible for it, said a FEMA official. But, working with groups such as CWS, more than 6,000 such families have registered. "These are people who didn't know about the help or they were afraid to come out and ask," he said. "We expect that number to hit 10,000 by the time we get done."

That's a huge number of potentially marginalized people who have gotten into a system that previously ignored them, he said. "Many disasters don't have that many registrations in total."

It's a model for the future, and it's an example of how things need to change, said Remaly. "The rules need to be rewritten when it comes to the way we treat disenfranchised communities."

Remaly is urging her peers to closely scrutinize the way disasters - and disaster response - impact people with special needs. "This gives us an opportunity to rewrite response."

For both federal and faith-based responders, it's painful to watch some communities be treated unfairly. "For some people, the farm workers are just invisible," said the FEMA official. "They're being treated like they're not human. There's a social justice component to all this."

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