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Trauma still evident in FL

Some days the Rev. Russ Hickman is just glad to be alive.

BY SUSAN KIM | PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. | December 13, 2004

"There have been no windows or no glass doors in the back of my house since August 13."

—Rev. Russ Hickman

Some days the Rev. Russ Hickman is just glad to be alive.

When Hurricane Charley made landfall Aug. 13, Hickman was in his house in Port Charlotte, standing by a triple glass door. Then his wife called to him: "Come quick, you've got to see."

A neighbor's roof was being torn off by the storm. Hickman hesitated - but then went to stand next to his wife.

"I left that door for 30 seconds - and everything blew," he said. "A double window blew in, the triple glass doors went the other direction, and plate glass went flying in pieces right where I had been standing. I was 30 seconds away from death.

"I just stood there in shock as it started to pull the ceiling down. Then it stopped. I guess the pressure equalized somehow and it just stopped."

Although many forecasters said Charley's winds reached 150-mph, at least two wind gauges in Hickman's community broke when they registered 175 mph.

Was it a tornado that hit Hickman's house? Maybe, he said. "It could have been a tornado. It's impossible to know for sure. The fact that it blew everything at the same time means it was likely a tornado. So many tornadoes spun off that storm."

On Monday, Hickman will be able to see daylight out the back of his house for the first time. Volunteers are coming to install new windows. "There have been no windows or no glass doors in the back of my house since August 13," he said, since he and his wife boarded up their home shortly after Charley tore it apart. "That will be the first time I look out the back of my house. It has been like a cave."

He and his wife will replace the ceiling in three rooms.

Hickman said he's blessed, not just to be alive, but to be able to stay in his community, which was devastated by Charley.

At least 200 of his several hundred parishioners at First Presbyterian Church in Port Charlotte had to relocate, at least temporarily, while their homes are repaired or rebuilt. Most are 75 miles away, but many are 100 or even 1,000 miles away.

"Some of them aren't coming back," said Hickman. "Their kids came and got them and they just left Florida for good."

Many members of the congregation lived in a retirement village that was severely damaged. Until repairs are complete - which could be in March - most of them are living in two Tampa hotels.

Last year, the First Presbyterian Church had about 800 people attend each Sunday. This year, it's at about 500 people. "It has an effect on our church - an emotional one and an economic one. We have four sections in the church. We've roped off the left and right ones so people will sit in the center two."

The church's educational building alone sustained $2 million in damages, said Hickman - "but, you know, we also had an awful lot of stained glass windows, and do you know not one of them had even a scratch?"

A couple weeks ago, church members were able to meet together at Cedar Kirk, a camp jointly owned by the Tampa Presbytery and the Peace River Presbytery.

Thanks to funding from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, "we were able to meet together," said Hickman. "We spent the day together. And the weather was just perfect."

More than 20 people in the church had homes that were completely demolished. Others, who were living in repairable homes, are suddenly finding their homes infested with hazardous mold.

"Mold has been growing unbeknownst to them. They are having to moving out this month and rent a place while they tear out the drywall and redo it."

But he also sees that people are beginning to recover - though some are becoming exhausted. "There is such difficulty in finding a contractor. Plus, the job that cost you $20,000 last year costs $60,000 this year. The price of materials has gone up that much."

Many people are still wrestling with insurance companies, he said, trying to get long-delayed payments.

He said the effect of trauma has been noticeable in his community. "We have started calling it 'hurricane brain,' " he said. "What it means is that you can't remember things. The hurricanes caused so much stress that people tend to be forgetful."

As for Hickman, he said by next hurricane season he would be better prepared. "We had no protection on our windows," he said - a situation he really regretted. He has lived in the house for seven years and has lived in Florida for 15 years.

He said many people in Port Charlotte felt the way he did - "this community hadn't been hit in 44 years," he said.

Next hurricane season, he said, he's going to board up his house. "During the winter I am installing hurricane shutters. I just want to be ready next time."

He is also replacing his glass door with impact-resistant glass that shatters into tiny pieces - as a car windshield - instead of into life-threatening shards. "It's very heavy glass, very thick," he said. "What we had before became deadly plate glass."

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