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Hurricane wipes away livelihood

For the residents of two small Florida towns, Hurricane Dennis wiped out their livelihood.


"We're trying to solve these dilemmas, and it will take all of us pulling together."

—Kay Wheeler

For the residents of two small Florida towns, Hurricane Dennis wiped out their livelihood.

The Rev. Kay Wheeler has seen and heard many of their stories since early July, when an extremely high storm surge inundated the gulf communities of Apalachicola and Eastpoint.

"It was a ten foot wall of water that hit us," said Wheeler, the deacon and acting minister at Trinity Episcopal Church. "We weren't in the eye of the storm - that was 150 miles east of us. No one expected this."

And because no one expected it, she said, hardly any of the large population of oystermen and shrimpers removed their boats or equipment from the water. When the wall of water came in, it not only destroyed boats, but it also damaged the oyster beds.

"It's a real tragedy down here," said Wheeler. "They say it could take up to two years for the oyster beds to come back because they're covered in sand. The people who were on the water have been there all their lives, now they don't know what to do."

Without a source of income, many are having a hard time making ends meet. To compound that, hundreds of homes were flooded when the storm surge came in - and families are stuck in the homes because they cannot afford to go anywhere else.

For now, a grant from Episcopal Relief and Development is helping Wheeler's church be able to pay bills and buy food for many of the affected families. But because so many people have come through their door, she added, the money is quickly running out.

There is a positive so far, though, too. "The good news is that for the first time ever, all the churches are working together," Wheeler said. Trinity Episcopal will host a meeting Monday with all the area churches to begin formulating a response plan for the affected communities. Also on hand will be the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local government officials and other community non-profits.

"We're trying to solve these dilemmas, and it will take all of us pulling together."

For the residents, the help cannot come soon enough. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Dennis' storm surge is also emotionally crippling. Wheeler said the stories she hears each day as she tries to check on the emotional and spiritual state of residents are heart-wrenching.

"When you see an oysterman - and these are strong, strong guys - sit in your office and cry, it gets to you," she explained.

Some oystermen are considering career changes, but many cannot even think of a change like that. "Most don't want to leave the water because that's all they know," Wheeler said.

For the two communities, which Wheeler said are comprised of about 5,200 total people, the recovery from this historic surge will take years. Debris still sits piled in yards and along roads in the communities.

Wheeler looks forward to Monday's meeting with the churches and community leaders, hoping that the recovery will really take shape and start moving forward. She is grateful for the help they have been able to distribute so far to those in need.

"We've really given people hope," she said. "But everyday when we get to the church there is still a line waiting for us."

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