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FL weighs joys, trials

Florida's recovery from the 2004 hurricanes swings between blessings and burdens.

BY SUSAN KIM | PUNTA GORDA, Fla. | March 25, 2006

"You don't know unless you're living it."

—Steve Mock

Florida's recovery from the 2004 hurricanes swings between blessings and burdens.

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda worshipped for the first time Sunday in a sanctuary newly rebuilt after Hurricane Charley razed it nearly 18 months ago.

It is difficult to capture the feelings of coming full circle, said the Rev. Steve Mock, pastor, as he struggled for words. "It was awesome. It was wonderful," he said, "and we had a packed house."

The church will officially dedicate the building April 2. But the sanctuary's rebirth is occurring amid a recovery that is still commencing, sometimes in very painful ways, acknowledged Mock.

"Recovery here will take years," he said, and his church is intricately tied to a community that still has grave needs.

As the so-called "FEMA Village" - or cluster of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers - in Punta Gorda empties, many people simply can't find an affordable place to live. One year after Charley hit, Charlotte County had the highest number of people - more than 1,000 - living in FEMA trailers.

Now the FEMA Village has about half the 500 trailers it did six months ago. For residents who have a clear plan to locate alternate housing, the deadline to leave the trailers has been extended to September. Those residents have been paying rent for the trailers since May. People who had no clear plan for alternate housing had to leave in February.

Mock worries about how intimidating it is to formulate a housing plan for your family when affordable dwellings are so scarce in Florida. But, he said, deadlines for trailer occupancy are a necessary reality. Though some families faced traumatic departures, he said, "some people were just taking advantage of it."

A great deal of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing was destroyed by Charley, he said. "They're just starting to talk about what to do to replace it."

Some hurricane survivors simply want to leave, he said - but a flattening housing market has made that difficult. "There are some people who have been trying to sell their house for a year now. They want to get out."

Mock said he also watches businesses struggle to get up and running again in his community. "Some of them are just now getting things approved and they are ready to get going. But for others, a lot of major work has to be done."

All these recovery issues add up, he said. Even when a church or recovery group faces a joyful time, they're always aware of the ongoing need that gets more painful the longer it stretches on.

Florida's recovery is wrapped around broad social issues such as housing and jobs, but it's also incredibly personal to hundreds of families - a fact that the rest of the nation often seems to forget, said Mock.

"Some people are still waiting to get in their homes," he said, readily naming just a few of the people he knows are still waiting - "a librarian, a couple whose house was leveled, a photographer from the Herald Tribune."

When you try to take a personal look at the large number of people still living in difficult situations, Mock said, you realize the needs are still overwhelming.

And Floridians are very aware of that, he said. "But nationally? I think people aren't aware. You don't know unless you're living it."

How do people keep their strength during long-term recovery? "We find a source of hope and we find anything positive in our lives right now," explained Mock. "We celebrate every positive thing that happens. We need that. All of us are still feeling the trauma of Charley. We still deal with the normal stuff of life. Yet always lingering in the background is the trauma Charley inflicted on us."

Some people are able to see their recovery as "an incredible experience of God's grace and blessing and faith to us," said Mock. "You can see it as a tremendous tragedy or a tremendous blessing."

Either way, Mock believes many residents have come to terms with the realization that God isn't going to protect them from the hardness of life. "How you respond to that can make you stronger or weaker," he said.

Meanwhile, the 2006 hurricane season begins in 68 days - the probable beginning of many hurricane seasons predicted to be more active than normal. Part of keeping your strength during recovery means getting yourself prepared, Mock said.

"We've got 700 families slated to move into our community in the next couple years," he said. "At this point, our building would withstand another Charley with minimal damage."

Although the church isn't located on high enough ground to serve as an official evacuation shelter, Mock said his congregation is looking into serving as an after-the-storm shelter. "We are considering getting a generator."

At this point in recovery, Mock said, the congregation is looking at ways to help future storm survivors. "We feel so blessed in so many ways," he said. "And God has made us stronger. But we're still not normal. When hurricane season starts, there are people who will become very anxious."

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