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FL sees tough recovery after flood

BY P.J. HELLER | MIAMI | October 10, 2000

Faith-based organizations are mobilizing here to develop a long-term recovery plan to help South Florida residents affected by the torrential rains which inundated parts of the region.

One week after the deluge, the extent of damage was becoming readily apparent as the waters receded. "I think they are awakening to fact that they have a much bigger problem than they thought they had originally," said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida Interfaiths Networking in Disaster (FIND).

Preliminary damage assessments have ranged as high as $700 million -- $500 million of which was agricultural losses in Miami-Dade County -- which is far worse than the losses inflicted by Hurricane Irene last year. More than 1,000 homes, mobile homes, and apartments in South Florida were listed as "destroyed" with another 1,154 housing units sustaining heavy damage.

"So many of the people I've talked to have been hit before," said Brenda Richey McMurry, a disaster mental health coordinator for the American Red Cross. "It becomes very depressing. People feel almost like giving up."

Disaster Child Care (DCC), a disaster ministry affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, activated nine volunteers to provide childcare for affected families. DCC volunteers will work with the Red Cross in family service centers in Dade and Broward counties.

One shelter remained open Monday in Miami-Dade County housing about 90 people, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported. It said a Salvation Army feeding station was also in operation, as were 11 canteens and 22 comfort stations. Officials said more than 60,000 meals have been served in Miami-Dade and Broward counties since the rains began on Oct 3. More than 19,000 people -- at least 95 percent of them from the Miami-Dade area -- have already applied for disaster assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That assistance was made available after President Clinton last week declared Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, and Monroe counties disaster areas. That declaration Oct. 5 made the region eligible for federal funds to aid in the recovery.

Five recovery information centers were open in Miami-Dade County. The 320 public schools in Miami-Dade County were all scheduled to be open for classes today. James Lee Witt, director of FEMA, toured the soaked area and described it as "very, very depressing." Three deaths have been attributed to the storm, which dumped up to 18 inches on the area beginning last Tuesday. A meeting of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) was scheduled for Wednesday in Miami, according to Hill.

She said an interfaith meeting was planned following that session. "We're going to be taking a look at what the long-term recovery needs are going to be," she said. Those needs may be extensive, she and others agreed. She said many of the residents displaced by the storm live in low-income neighborhoods or did not have insurance. "Because many of the areas that were hardest hit by the flooding are populated by lower income families, there will be a great many needs," said Bill Rhan, chair of the Florida state VOAD and disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Florida Annual Conference.

Laurie Kraus of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said residents did not have flood and windstorm insurance because rates have become prohibitive in South Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Federal assistance may provide some relief. That assistance, coordinated by FEMA, includes grants to help residents pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover residential and business losses not fully compensated by insurance.

Elected officials, meantime, are grappling with how best to prevent future flooding, especially in the hard hit areas of Sweetwater and West Miami. The problem, officials say, is that drainage canals simply cannot handle heavy storm runoff. One proposed solution is construction of a multi-million dollar pumping station at the Tamiami Canal's discharge point into the Miami River. The project could take years to complete.

Other pumping stations designed to get water off of streets and into drainage canals are in the works or are in the planning stages. Residents, meanwhile, continue to muck out their homes and assess damages.

Hill said that the reality of the situation is probably just setting in for many people. "Pretty soon they're going to start realizing that if they've had two or three feet of water in their house that they're going to have to take the carpet out and they're going to have to start cutting the drywall out as the walls start turning black," she said.

FEMA urged residents to exercise caution when returning to flood-damaged homes." We urge residents returning to their homes to use common sense and follow some simple guidelines to safeguard their welfare," Witt said. "While it's good to be home and to begin cleaning up, it's vital to know what risks are posed in a flood-damaged home." Those risks include contamination, electrical shock, and structural instability.

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