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Hurricanes take emotional toll

"You do get tired of all the hurricanes. You build up your barn and home, you store a few things, you leave - and then when you come back it's all gone."

BY HEATHER MOYER | BELLE GLADE, Fla. | November 4, 2005

"People don't know what to do or where to go."

—Katie Dodd

"You do get tired of all the hurricanes. You build up your barn and home, you store a few things, you leave - and then when you come back it's all gone."

Those are the words of the Rev. Izzy Perez, pastor of the Hispanic Community United Methodist Church (CUMC). For Perez and his parishioners, Hurricane Wilma just dealt another powerful blow to a community still struggling from last year's hurricane season.

Belle Glade is a rural community some 45 miles west of Palm Beach. The land around the city of 15,000 residents is flat and covered with sugar cane crops. The majority of the residents rely on the local farming industry for work. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 32% of the city lives below the poverty line, with some 28% of Belle Glade families below the poverty line as well.

Three hurricanes in a matter of 13 months only set back the families more, said Perez, but they are still doing their best to work through the challenges. "When something like this happens, you get angry," he explained. "And then after you're done with the anger, you get sad. You know you can power through it, but you get sad. Some of our members lost roofs, others lost food. You just do your best to come out of it."

The lingering needs from last year's hurricanes were only made worse by Hurricane Wilma - and all of Palm Beach County is struggling. Sheri Taylor of the Palm Beach County Long Term Recovery Committee (PBCLTRC) said the committee was still working with 700 families affected by hurricanes Jeanne and Frances when Hurricane Wilma hit.

"The bulk of families we were assisting from last year's hurricanes either totally lost their homes (in Wilma) or received additional major damage," said Taylor, who works for PBCLTRC lead agency United Way of Palm Beach County.

The strain is being felt among the social service agencies around the county after three hurricanes, she added. Taylor said the housing situation was already a major challenge before Wilma and now it will only get worse.

"There is no affordable housing in Palm Beach County," Taylor said. "This is an ongoing issue; last year's hurricanes drove prices through the roof. There is no place to put these folks leaving shelters or being evicted because their homes are condemned. Whoever's displaced now will be displaced next year."

To compound the issue, home repairs are slow because PBCLTRC is also having trouble finding housing for out-of-town volunteers. Taylor says they are still seeking out space in local churches or county offices because the committee does not have the funds to put volunteers in hotels.

"It is a grave situation that we're looking at."

Back in Belle Glade, Community United Methodist Church's other pastor just received a call from a family in need. "It was this young guy with seven kids," said the Rev. Carmen Arnett. "They lost their roof and have no place to go - so they're still living in the remains of their home. And now it's raining again."

The rain is making the situation worse inside CUMC, too. Arnett sat in her office Wednesday, rubbing her eyes. "It's the mold," she said. The carpet in the church is soggy after Wilma blew out the windows. For now, Arnett said she is reaching out to parishioners who suffered damages and trying to match the needs with the resources she knows are available in Belle Glade.

Arnett worries about the many farm workers in the community. Wilma leveled the sugar cane crop and so the laborers will again have the challenge of finding a job.

The emotional needs of those families are increasing as well.

PBCLTRC's Taylor said she regularly receives calls from people who are in tears. "They are spent, they are desperate and they don't know where to go," she explained. "It's also emotionally draining to sit on a call like that. We've been providing support for a year and the caregivers are spent, too. A good bit of the social services staff here also lost their own homes and are looking for housing, too."

For Katie Dodd, the shock on her clients' faces is clear. "I went around knocking on doors after Wilma to check in," said Dodd, case manager for Christians Reaching Out to Society Ministries (CROS). "People I don't even know would come out and just start crying. The shock is there. I saw one woman standing in the rubble of her trailer at the kitchen sink. She was slicing up a vegetable. People don't know what to do or where to go."

CROS is a social service agency in Palm Beach County, and funding from the United Methodist Committee on Relief helped them hire three case managers to cover Palm Beach County, St. Lucie County and Martin County - all hard hit by last year's hurricanes. Dodd said they still have plenty of work left over from last year, and agreed that Wilma just made everything worse.

Like Taylor of PBCLTRC, Dodd said volunteers are desperately needed, but there's a severe lack of housing for them. "We've got 45 jobs waiting for volunteers right now," she explained - adding that many who call in to help are only wanting to help with the immediate response to Wilma.

"People are so focused on the immediate needs and don't remember last year. We're going to need volunteers a year from now regardless of whether we get another storm or not. Wilma just adds to the urgency to get things done."

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