FL families still struggling

Life after Hurricane Wilma is still harsh for many south Florida residents.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BELLE GLADE, Fla. | March 10, 2006

"We're standing in the gap for these people."

—Rev. Kenneth Jackson

Life after Hurricane Wilma is still harsh for many south Florida residents as housing and employment opportunities remain scarce.

One pastor said due to the lingering problems, most aid made available to the affected families is snatched up very quickly.

"We received our second aid shipment two weeks ago, and the food was gone the next day," said the Rev. Kenneth Jackson, Jr., pastor of Glades Covenant Community Church in South Bay.

Hurricane Wilma compounded many poverty issues already present in the South Bay and Belle Glade areas, a rural area home to many senior citizens and migrant farm workers. Jackson's church received two shipments of aid from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Besides food, the shipments included blankets, health kits and school kits. Those items also moved quickly out of the church, added Jackson.

He said his church might be small, but they want to help the affected families. "We're pretty much people who are really concerned about what we can do to make a difference," said Jackson of his 60-member congregation.

For the large migrant farm worker population around Belle Glade, life was recently made even more difficult by a severe freeze which destroyed many local crops. With no source of income, families are becoming more desperate. The donated food from MCC got the families through that rough time, but the problems still linger. And so Jackson is now working closely with other community groups in Belle Glade and around Palm Beach County to meet the needs of the Wilma survivors. He said a local long-term recovery organization should be formed very soon.

Meeting the needs of many local residents is also a challenge due to trust issues. "Some of us didn't have these relationships with the families before the storm," explained Jackson. "So now we're doing those things it takes to build trust in any relationship."

Much of the local population is Hispanic, too, with Jackson noting that the trust issues also stem from the families legal documentation issues. Reaching out to these families is still a priority, though, with Jackson noting that, "We are standing in the gap for these people."

With little to no affordable housing or rental properties in the area, the involved agencies are trying to get the families' trailers and homes repaired. Jackson said sometimes the agencies' hands are tied because affected families are living in rental properties already. "Housing is a major issue. Much of the housing here is substandard, and even then frequently the families don't own it," he explained.

"Helping the landowners and landlords is a concern at times, we're afraid to do it because they might turn around and evict the current families and start charging higher rent."

Katie Dodd, a case manager for Christians Reaching Out to Society (CROS) Ministries, also lamented the housing crisis in the area. CROS is a social service agency covering all of Palm Beach County. "A lot of the trailers were completely demolished (by Wilma). Families have to live with other families, they have nowhere else to go because if they don't fix their mobile homes then they're out of luck."

And so CROS case managers are acting as housing advocates for the affected families to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Dodd said her agency has little funding to help repair trailers, and finding affordable housing is next to impossible. Some funds have come down through the United Way, but Dodd said so much more help is needed.

One positive note for the families around Belle Glade is the volunteer work crews in on behalf of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). The crews arrived in the area in late January to repair and rebuild homes. Dodd said the crews have already completed 15 projects. "They're awesome, and there's plenty more to do. There's so much need in that area, there will always be homes to fix."

Beyond housing, other issues will be present for the area families as well. Jackson said local churches are reaching out to find out just what else families need. "Many families have not come forward yet, but we know others are still in need," he said. "The need is great, and we'll do whatever we can, be it helping them with groceries or bills. We don't have a limited time for helping those families."

That kind of support is necessary, said Dodd, especially when seeing the emotions survivors are experiencing now some four months after Wilma tore through. "I'm still doing visits with families, and they're tired. You go to some of them and ask for paperwork and they don't get it back to you. It's because they're so tired at this point. They've lost hope and are thinking they may have to live like this for a long time."

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Related Links:

Mennonite Central Committee

Mennonite Disaster Service

CROS Ministries

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee


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