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FL volunteers bring hope

One small home in downtown Pensacola looks empty from the outside, but the inside reveals a different story.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PENSACOLA, Fla. | July 20, 2005

"People had damage from Ivan, and it was compounded by Dennis."

—Sandra King

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, one small home in downtown Pensacola looks empty from the outside, but the inside reveals a different story.

Four volunteers from the Church of God in Christ Mennonite are busily repairing the home, which was severely damaged by both Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Dennis. One front window is still broken. Inside, the walls are new and have not yet been painted. The volunteers are still spackling and sealing the seams.

For volunteer Sidney Litweller, the work has been a life-changing experience. "So far itís been the best two months of my life," said Litweller, who came down from Kentucky to help for several months. The home belongs to an elderly woman who has not been able to live there since Ivan roared through last September.

Around Pensacola, visibly damaged homes and businesses remain. Blue-tarp roofs dot neighborhoods, as do debris-lined streets and downed trees. Across Escambia County, Hurricane Dennis made life after Hurricane Ivan even more of a challenge.

"People are living with mold and mildew - we have a lot of people in need of a safe place," said Carolyn Appleyard, co-executive director of Rebuild Northwest Florida (RNWF). "And itís hot out there, weíve got to get people back in. Itís becoming a health issue."

RNWF is a long-term recovery agency formed in the wake of Hurricane Ivan to help families in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Appleyard says their current push is a "roofing blitz" aimed at repairing as many roofs as possible. "Weíre working hard on metal roofs right now as we have a lot of mobile homes weíre dealing with," she explained. "Weíre hiring roofers to help families with insufficient insurance, then volunteers can come in to do the indoor work."

RNWF works closely with the Santa Rosa County Long-Term Recovery Committee and the Escambia County Long-Term Recovery Committee (ECLTRC), as well as with a number of faith-based and community-based agencies.

"There is a lot of communication between us and the county long-term recovery committees," Appleyard said.

RNWF recently started an Adopt-A-Family program to encourage local churches to become more involved. Churches sign up with RNWF, which screens them in order to match skills with the needs of a family. So far, three families have already been placed. "It's very, very rewarding," said Stan Lollar, RNWF's administrative coordinator of volunteers. "We supply all the materials and (the churches) supply the labor."

The needs certainly continue to pile up as more and more families call in for assistance. More than 150 calls come in each day, according to Sandra King, program coordinator of emergency assistance and long-term recovery for Catholic Charities (Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee).

"People had damage from Ivan, and it was compounded by Dennis," she said. "People keep calling to say 'it's raining in my home and I have mold.'"

King said a housing shortage just makes life more complicated for everyone, noting that many families are either just living in one room of their home or that some homes are now housing more than one family. Those problems simply add to the emotional toll as well.

"Many have hurricane fatigue already, this is stressing them out," explained King. "Seniors citizens are also having a really hard time. We had one elderly woman who is refusing to have the boards taken off her windows because she thinks they'll just have to go up again when another hurricane hits again in a week."

Hurricane Dennis may not have impacted as many people as Ivan, but that does not mean the area dodged a bullet.

"The problem is that our benchmark is the fourth worst disaster in U.S. history," said the Rev. Walk Jones, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Pensacola.

"When your benchmark is Ivan, itís not so bad. But thatís a crazy benchmark. Weíre used to living around destruction. There are lots of families displaced by this, but itís dozens and hundreds rather than the thousands during Ivan. So for any normal year without Ivan, we would be talking about this as a devastating storm. Last year has distorted our way of thinking."

Jackie Bell agrees. The chair of the Escambia County Long-Term Recovery Committee (ECLRTC) said Ivan was worse as far as numbers, but it is never right to compare one person's devastation to another.

"Ivan clearly eclipsed anything we had ever experienced before - it was truly devastating," she said. "But the impact after Hurricane Dennis is still huge. It's a very resilient community - it's clearly been very difficult."

Bell said home repairs and rebuilds are the priority right now, and the best way for people to help is via monetary donations. "That may sound crude, but we only have limited storage ability, the more flexible we are the better we can respond."

She added that the recovery within Escambia County is also a challenge because of the differences across the county. Northern Escambia County is very rural, while the southern part is home to Pensacola and extensive tourism. Bell credits the cooperation between all the involved agencies for being able to keep the affected-families' needs first.

Some say the long-term recovery in the area could take anywhere from three to five years, possibly longer. For volunteers like Sidney Litweller, they'll keep coming as long as the need is there.

"I just want to give back," he said with a smile.

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