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Mixed emotions face many

Faith-based volunteers provide assistance to resident in Florida town.

BY SUSAN KIM | ARCADIA, FL | November 15, 2004

"Frustrated. Overwhelmed. But I've tried to be grateful." That's how Mary Jane, a resident of Arcadia FL, described her emotions Saturday.

But the night Hurricane Charley churned across her town, she was "scared to death," she recalled. "My friend and I stayed in the bathroom. I have a cat and dog."

One hour after the winds died down, the first piece of her ceiling fell and hit her friend, bruising her leg. "After that the ceiling kept falling," said Mary Jane. "One by one the rooms just fell."

Hurricane Charley, she said, "trashed the front of the house," and the first people who came to help were three people from the Trinity United Methodist Church in town, along with her friends and neighbors.

Not a churchgoer now, Mary Jane remembers, "being Methodist for awhile." Her husband and young daughter were killed by a drunk driver years ago, she said, and she lives alone.

After Charley hit, "a lady came to the door. She was going door-to-door, checking to see how people were doing."

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, among other groups, has been assessing needs in this way - face-to-face with residents - in Arcadia and other places in hurricane-wracked Florida.

Charley caused the worst wreckage in Mary Jane's home, but heavy rainfall from later storms compounded the damage. "Then the mold smell got so bad."

Mary Jane also met with her insurance agent and with a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

She was vastly underinsured for the damage, she said, "and I have to say I found my insurance agent totally worthless. They've always wanted their money on time but they took forever to even assess my damages."

She received a FEMA check for $400, thought about buying new carpet with it, but instead spent it on building materials for drywalling. "I'm just going to paint these concrete floors until I can get a new carpet. People say, 'but the floors are so hard,' and I say, 'well, people have tile floors that are just as hard.' "

She has not yet applied to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to see if she is eligible for a low-interest loan. Faith-based and voluntary groups, along with FEMA officials, have been urging hurricane-affected residents to fill out an SBA application because, even if an applicant is ineligible for a loan, an SBA application must be on file to quality for other federal assistance.

"I'll have to look into that," Mary Jane said on Saturday. "But right now I'd just like to sleep for a week."

Volunteers from Anona United Methodist Church - some 80 miles away - are working inside and outside of her house, building an access ramp, repainting, and carrying heavy furniture.

Previous volunteer teams helped her eradicate the mold, put up new drywall, and patch what was left of the ceiling. "I did that section myself," said Mary Jane, pointing to a wall. "I've learned to drywall."

She's grateful for the help, said Mary Jane, because for awhile - "I was having a pity party."

Then somebody asked her if the hurricane had brought the worst day of her life. "I said, no, that looking at two caskets - my daughter and my husband - was the worst day of my life. Compared to that - this was nothing. And once somebody asked me that, and I answered - I was fine."

On Saturday, she was sorting through personal items in her damaged, dusty house. "I saved the baby books my mother had of me, and the baby books of my daughter. I saved the crochet items my mother made - she made that whole pile over there," said Mary Jane, pointing to a vividly colored stack of blankets and scarves.

Outside, Jessica Clements, a high school senior and a member of the Anona United Methodist Church, was opening a can of paint. "Helping people like this is one of the most rewarding things ever - just to be able to serve God and helping someone to realize there are people who care."

Watching the damage unfold on TV, Clements said she realized "it's horrible. And I was unaffected. We're so fortunate. There is no reason at all why all of us shouldn't be out here."

Yet if Clements and her peers know about the damage - because they're repairing it - there are some people within Florida and even more in other states who don't understand that hurricane recovery will take a long time.

"A local reporter called me and said, 'I guess you're glad this is about over,' " said Marilyn Swanson, director of disaster recovery for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Swanson - working with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMOR) - and others are trying to get the message out that long-term recovery is only just beginning.

As Church World Service and other faith-based groups help fledging interfaith long-term recovery teams get started across the state, Swanson said she is encouraged by the enthusiasm of people who want to help. "These are not just people who want to see what's going on. These are people who want to be involved."

The conference, in partnership with UMCOR, is offering case management training in several communities.

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