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A disaster recovery specialist says some FL hurricane survivors could be reaching a low point.

BY SUSAN KIM | ORLANDO | November 13, 2004

"Right now some people are dejected, scared, sad, depressed."

—Christy Smith

What will Florida look like a year from now?

For responders zigzagging across the state, predictions are still up in the air, because long-term recovery is still in the planning stages. "We will be able to look a year from now all over Florida and see where things are going well and where they are not," said Christy Smith, a consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Smith traveled to Orlando Friday to offer her perspective on how to help people recover from a disaster that has changed the fabric of their lives. The training program - on "case management" - is really about how people relate to one another in a post-disaster situation.

"Recovery happens locally," said Smith, and right now it's better for churches in Florida to focus on local needs than to try to address a statewide recovery challenge, she said.

"Don't try to put your arms around the need across Florida or you'll blow your mind," she said - and added, jokingly, "let FEMA do that and blow their minds."

Speaking before Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, church members and community leaders, Smith said at least some hurricane survivors on Florida could be reaching a low point - just when their plight isn't national news anymore.

"People are feeling low and bereft," she said. "The media is gone. It's not in the news anymore."

Immediately after the hurricanes - and immediately after nearly every disaster - people tend to pump themselves full of adrenalin, a natural reaction. "But now for some people things are in terrible shape," she said.

What can churches do? Sometimes, simply caring is enough, she said. "Sometimes just showing up and asking 'how are you doing?' is enough," she said. "Right now some people are dejected, scared, sad, depressed."

It's important to have some training before just showing up at a disaster survivor's door, said Smith and other responders. UMCOR and other faith-based groups have been helping churches in Florida and other states coordinate a long-term recovery effort that could take three to five years.

Caring church members can help combat people's sense of isolation, she said.

More than 1.1 million people had registered for FEMA assistance in Florida as of Nov. 12, and the deadline for applying for aid related to all four major hurricanes this season - Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne - is now Jan. 3.

Faith-based and voluntary agencies should encourage people to apply for FEMA aid, said Smith. "Don't let people wait until that deadline," she said. "One year from now, people who didn't register with FEMA will come to you for help, because they thought they could make it on their own."

Responding to this season's hurricanes will help the state prepare for the next time around, said local residents.

"There was much complacency in many of our churches," said Carl Baumer, a member of Pine Castle United Methodist Church in Orlando. "We were unprepared."

For volunteers like Baumer, the drive to help others has become a part of every day life. "God cares for us and we care for people," he said.

But that doesn't mean faith-based disaster responders try to convert people, or proselytize, said Smith. "Our job is not to go in and speak our faith - it's to go in and live our faith."

As the weeks go by, the focus of long-term recovery groups will be to help people who can't recover with the federal or state aid available to them. "We need to get to those people for whom the wonderful FEMA help - and it is wonderful - is not going to be enough. Long-term recovery is the light at the end of the tunnel."

Smith helped lead response in Jackson, TN, after tornadoes devastated that area in May 2003. The most vulnerable tornado survivors in Jackson, she said, "were fragile. They were right on the edge of the precipice."

That's the case in Florida, too, she said, and sometimes it's up to churches and faith-based groups "to get their emotional energy moving in a good direction."

Working with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Mennonite Disaster Service, and many other groups, UMCOR is trying to identify people who could potentially get little or no help.

But finding people in need isn't as easy as it sounds, explained Smith. "Sometimes making contact will be hard," she said. "People are not where they're supposed to be."

Keeping track of disaster survivors has become more streamlined during the past year since Lutheran Disaster Response, in partnership with UMCOR, developed case management software designed to track client information and the state of recovery. In the future, when groups such as CRWRC are conducting damage assessments, assessment software will be compatible with the case management software.

Disaster survivors and responders alike should double check FEMA aid to make sure the right amount of aid has been received. "FEMA hires people with two hours of training for call centers," said Smith. "Mistakes have been made."

FEMA spells out its appeals process very clearly, she said, and sometimes disaster survivors need help in appealing their aid - or even applying in the first place. "You're not taking power away from them by helping them. People are so weighed down by what's happening to them."

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