Confronting FL disaster needs

The town of Arcadia has become a melting pot for volunteers who all come for the same reason: to help somebody else.

BY SUSAN KIM | ARCADIA | November 14, 2004

The town of Arcadia has become a melting pot for volunteers who all come for the same reason: to help somebody else.

On Saturday morning, carloads of college students were arriving at the First Presbyterian Church, while just across the street work teams were stopping by Trinity United Methodist Church before canvassing the neighborhood. Next door, families from Christian Aid Ministries were loading up their tools, nearly ready to roll, while a coordinator from Mennonite Disaster Service gave people directions.

Why were they all here? Because Arcadia, a once-quiet town in southern Florida where many people have spent their whole lives, took a hard hit from Hurricane Charley - then later storms compounded the damage.

As visibly active as volunteers are, for residents right now, hurricane recovery is an unglamorous waiting game. "People are still waiting on temporary housing. They're waiting for insurance checks, they're waiting for roofers," said Polly Land of the First Presbyterian Church, who was welcoming teams of students from Eckerd College, a Presbyterian-affiliated school in St. Petersburg.

Some Arcadia residents, she said, have been put on a two-and-a-half year waiting list for roof repairs. "Blue tarps aren't going to last in Florida for two-and-a-half-years," she said.

The First Presbyterian Church was damaged when Hurricane Charley passed over, said Land. "As the storm went over, the tile buckled like a wave due to the barometric pressure," she said. "It looks like water damage but in fact there was no water."

Working with the Peace River Presbytery, and supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Land's church has joined many others in matching volunteers with people in need.

In DeSoto County, where Arcadia is surrounded by rural wetlands and pastures, small ranchers are still struggling to clear their pastures, she said. "We still have a lot of loose cattle," she said. "And these animals were traumatized."

Most cows rode out the storm by laying down in the fields, but many were injured when they were hit by debris. "Several people lost cattle," she said. "During Frances and Jeanne, our horse took refuge behind a massive tree that had fallen."

On Saturday morning, the college students were going to help clear heavy tree limbs from a resident's lot.

Annie Cavazuti, an intern at Eckerd College's service ministry department, said she realized most churches weren't ready for volunteers immediately after the storms hit. "I looked in the newspaper right after the storms but not many organizations were organized at that point," she said. "But now we are finding out about all kinds of needs."

Fellow volunteer Ashley Bickford said she volunteered a lot in high school but didn't find much time when she got to college - until now. "I used to do a lot of stuff like this at home."

They gathered in a yard just outside Arcadia. In the 80-degree heat, cutting up tree limbs and piling them onto a bonfire, the young people were sweltering.

The homeowner was bubbling over with gratefulness, checking on a cake in the oven she was baking for the students. "I didn't think I deserved their help," she said. "So many of my neighbors were worse off than me."

Her property was still covered with downed limbs, many so large they had to be cut up with chainsaws. She sees the physical marks of the storm all around her, she said, but there is also a lingering trauma.

"See that black horse over there? He's a Calvary reenactment horse. I mean, nothing can shake that animal. But he got scratched up during the storm and he's real skittish now when I ride him. He's getting better, though."

Looking around, she shook her head, and said, again: "I just don't deserve this help. But I'm so grateful for it."

For many faith-based groups, it's not a matter of deciding who deserves the help - it's a matter of sticking around until people's long-term needs are met, said Phil Schrock, project supervisor for Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), an Amish-affiliated group.

Hailing from Tennessee, Schrock has been involved in five previous disaster recovery projects. He and his team have repaired a home in downtown Arcadia, and the homeowner has agreed to let CAM house volunteers there. Schrock will stay through Christmas, he said, and CAM teams will be in place there for at least nine months.

Recovery in Arcadia and other areas of Florida could take three to five years, response officials have estimated.

"We looked around and we look at the income level here, and the poverty level here, and we saw a real need," said Schrock.

Across the street, Mike and Joyce Crane came from Michigan. Mike Crane, a heavy equipment operator, plans to operate a backhoe and other equipment to remove trees and other heavy debris. "There are trees still leaning over on their sides, and it's really dangerous to people," he said. "We'll be here for three weeks."

Scott Magness, a volunteer from the Anona United Methodist Church, some 80 miles away, wondered if people across the U.S. knew how much need there was. "I mean, thousands of people are going into the holidays here, and they have nothing," he said.

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