‘A sense of despair’

Debris is piled along the roads throughout Milton, a Florida panhandle community.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MILTON, Fla. | July 19, 2005

"The person who was homeless after Ivan is still homeless after Dennis."

—Rosalynn Bates

Debris is piled along the roads throughout Milton, a Florida panhandle community struck by Hurricane Dennis only ten months after being devastated by Hurricane Ivan.

The historic downtown neighborhood is again home to shattered windows, peeled back roofs, and downed trees. The residential areas look the same.

Inside the office of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Rosalynn Bates is taking a moment to compare the damages. “I thought Andrew was the worst I had ever seen - but after Ivan and Dennis, I realize we took a greater hit,” said Bates, chair of the Santa Rosa County Long-Term Recovery Committee (SRLTRC).

Disaster responders across the region agree that Hurricane Dennis only compounded the already challenging and extensive recovery from last September’s Hurricane Ivan. The stories among recovering residents are varied, but all include Dennis as yet another set-back. Some were just about to move back into their recently completed homes when Hurricane Dennis tore them down again.

Others were living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) until their homes were rebuilt or repaired. Yet when Hurricane Dennis roared through, even that temporary housing was damaged.

Bates said they are back to square one with many families. “The biggest issue is with the tarps,” she explained, noting the blue tarps distributed to help shore up roof leaks.

Fortunately, volunteers are already coming back to help out again. Some are handing out tarps, others are helping with home repairs, and still others are assisting with debris clean-up and removal.

Another positive is that because of the well-structured recovery network set up after Hurricane Ivan, not much more had to be set up in order to assist after Dennis.

“We were able to hit the ground running,” said Bates.

The proof of that is visible in the offices of RSVP in Milton. Volunteers are busy with case management paperwork, as well as with recruiting and placing volunteers around the area. Agencies that have helped SRLTRC include RSVP, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Church World Service, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Christian Contractors, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief United Way, American Red Cross, AmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps, and many more.

Bates said she is grateful for all the help pouring in thus far, and she hopes it continues.

“As great as our response has been, we still don’t want the attention on this disaster to wane,” she said. “The person who was homeless after Ivan is still homeless after Dennis.”

Other hard hit communities in Santa Rosa County include Bagdad, Jay, Navarre, Navarre Beach, Pace, Midway, Florida Town and Santa Rosa Island. Except for the coastal area, most of the county is rural and fairly low income, noted Bates. Many hard hit areas also lack public transportation, leaving few options for those who lost their vehicles in the storm.

“It’s rough - the loss of a car is as bad as losing a house for some,” said Bates.

She added that Hurricane Dennis also wiped out a number of farms in the northern part of the county.

In addition to the many businesses in and near Milton that suffered extensive damage, several local schools and county buildings lost roofs. Bates said she not only worries how bad of an economic toll this will take on the area, but also about whether the schools will be ready for the kids when the school year starts in August.

The added destruction of Dennis on top of Ivan has taken its emotional toll on the residents as well. “People are feeling a sense of despair,” said Dee Waitman, director of RSVP’s volunteer center. “This is much more of an emotional trauma.”

Bates nodded, adding, “This was the final straw for many.”

Standing by a table covered with bursting case management notebooks, Waitman said they are seeing between 75 and 100 new cases each day. Both she and Bates said they will continue to need donations of time, money, and building materials in order to continue the committee’s work in the county.

“We were struggling before Dennis - money was short then and money is still short now,” noted Bates. “Ivan was bad, and Dennis just made it worse. We will need that help for a while.”

As Bates and Waitman bustled around the office, a group of volunteers from Christian Disaster Response (CDR) walked in after another day of work in the steamy Florida sun. In town since last Wednesday, Dan Sebright said he does the volunteer work as a way to give back.

“We handed out tarps, delivered food, and unloaded trailers,” said the CDR volunteer from Lakeland, Fla. Volunteering is common for Sebright, a retired firefighter who just returned from helping rebuild homes in tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia. He said his own community is still reeling from Hurricane Charley last August.

“We still have blue roofs everywhere in my neighborhood,” he said, referring to the blue tarps.

Waitman and Bates appreciate Sebright and CDR’s sense of community that spans across the miles between their hometowns, as they do with all the hundreds of volunteers that have poured in from across the country.

Bates said that is the kind of help that will get the hurricane-ravaged communities back on their feet. “We’re very grateful for everything everyone has given us,” she said, adding with a laugh, “We’re all trying to work miracles.”

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