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No 'back to normal' in FL

For many in southwest Florida, life is not "back to normal" after last season's hurricanes.

BY SUSAN KIM | PUNTA GORDA | August 19, 2005

"We had floods and floods of people coming here asking for help."

—Sheila Morales

For many in southwest Florida, life is not "back to normal" after last season's hurricanes.

In fact, at this point, it's normal for people in the state to feel on edge, commented the Rev. Steve Mock, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda, which was destroyed by Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13 of last year.

"I think everybody's nerves are on edge," said Mock. Floridians find themselves still trying to recover from last year's storms - all while nervously watching hurricane forecasts that grow worse as the weeks go by.

"We have just been in this situation so long," said Mock. But there are positive changes afoot, he added. The church held its final worship service under tents at its historical downtown location on Aug. 7. The congregation has worshipped at that location since 1905 - but now the church will move to a new property and begin again. The old building was torn down on Aug. 8. "It's something that was hard but it was something that needed to be done," said Mock. "At this point, we're going to be glad to see the building go down."

The demolition, instead of symbolizing defeat, is a symbol that the future will be better, he reflected. "There is a sense of excitement about that," Mock said, and added he sees the entire community of Punta Gorda undergoing permanent change. "The old Punta Gorda is gone," he said. "The new one will arise. But people need to know that process is wearing on people. People need to know we are still seeing the after-effects of hurricanes here."

It's especially hard on people still displaced from their homes, observed Sheila Morales, parish nurse at Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church on Ft. Myers Beach.

When last year's storms first struck, she said people flocked to the church for assistance. "We had floods and floods of people coming here asking for help," remembered Morales. "Chapel by the Sea has historically been perceived as the place to come for help on the beach. People just showed up and said, 'I need this and I need that.' "

People are still coming, she added.

"Now I'm seeing people in the community who had hurricane damage and are still displaced. They were never able to return to their apartments, and they're still struggling to get back on their feet."

Like Rev. Mock, Morales agreed that, even for people back in their homes, the stress is high. "I think psychologically everyone is still affected. Even if we just get a really windy rainstorm, it stirs up a lot of emotion for people," she said.

The public tends to think everyone on Ft. Myers Beach has recovered, and that's simply not true, Morales observed. "I think that there was very little awareness of the damage here on the beach, maybe because it's a tourist area. They didn't want to hurt the tourist season. In the meantime, there are people struggling."

Chapel by the Sea is also still making repairs from the storm. The sanctuary's round stained glass window - a community landmark - was shattered in the storm, and the spot is still boarded up. "It makes the sanctuary a lot darker," Morales said, "but the new window will come in anytime now, and that will kind of symbolize we're back to where we need to be."

For hundreds of people across the state, getting back to where they need to be means getting a new roof. Blue tarps still mark the path of last year's storms, and residents worry whether those tarps will hold up during summer thunderstorms - much less new hurricanes.

From the tarp-covered education building at the First Presbyterian Church of Port Charlotte, the Rev. Jay Mumper commented on what it's like to work under a blue tarp and wait for repairs. "We did put a new roof over the sanctuary," said Mumper, who is director of family life ministries at the church.

"There are things happening here in Florida that people don't realize," he said. "There are a lot of houses still under tarps, and people are still living in RVs. It gets old, to tell you the truth. It's like you've gone camping and it's gone bad."

The church sustained more than $1 million in damages. About 75 percent of the interior sustained major water and mold damage. Now the church offices are still facing the possibility of harmful mold, said Mumper, and air samples have been taken.

Like many people across the state, church leaders have faced construction delays, building supply shortages, and high repair costs. "Even just pulling a permit, it can take a long, long time," said Mumper.

Mumper ministers to families, even while keeping one eye on the hurricane forecast himself. "I try to stay Mr. calm, cool, and collected. But as soon as I see something in the Caribbean, I think: oh, my gosh. I mean, Hurricane Charley was supposed to miss us. There's no telling what these storms will do."

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