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FL offers emergency assistance

The response continues to the Groundhog Day tornadoes in central Florida with the state offering $2 million in emergency assistance.

BY HEATHER MOYER | LADY LAKE, Fla. | February 27, 2007

"The TV cameras may have moved on, but thousands of Floridians affected by the tornadoes are still struggling to get their lives back on track."

—Gov. Charlie Crist

More than $2 million in emergency assistance will be made available to central Florida communities affected by the Groundhog Day tornadoes, Gov. Charlie Crist announced Tuesday.

"The TV cameras may have moved on, but thousands of Floridians affected by the tornadoes are still struggling to get their lives back on track," Crist said. "This emergency assistance can make a meaningful difference as the victims work to recover after having their lives turned upside-down."

Communities will have until March 13 to obtain applications for funding from the Department of Community Affairs. Proposals on how the funds will be spent must be submitted by March 30.

At least 51 percent of the funds must be used to benefit low- and moderate-income residents impacted by the Feb. 2 tornadoes, officials said. The funds will come from the Florida Small Cities Development Block Grant program.

Eligible towns in Sumter, Lake and Volusia counties, as well as the county of Sumter, can apply for a share of the funds.

Crist's announcement was the latest in the ongoing effort to help residents recover from the tornadoes.

Fritz Wilson of the Florida Baptist Convention said his volunteers have done more than 260 chainsaw clean-up jobs for families around the hard hit Lady Lake and Lake Mack areas in Lake County. They continue to assist with debris removal, but Wilson added they are looking toward the long-term recovery as well.

As agencies wrap up the immediate response phase, the focus moves toward setting up a long-term response in the affected counties of Lake, Sumter, Volusia and Seminole. Lake and Sumter County Emergency Response (LASER) is working on getting caseworkers to help the affected families for the long-term.

"'We hope to have some caseworkers on the ground some time next week," said Michael Tart, director of LASER. "From there we will be bringing in different organizations to do the rebuilding. But for now we're just gathering eggs - collecting donations that we can distribute."

Tart is encouraging those who want to help the thousands of affected families to donate to the Lake County and LASER coalition, via P.O. Box 1985, Lady Lake, FL 32158. He said aligning with the county gives LASER a high level of accountability.

"This is a long-term need we've got to fulfill," Tart said. "It'll take at least 18 to 24 months to get these people back at a comfort level because many have lost everything."

The Groundhog Day tornado ripped a deadly path across the four counties early on Feb. 2. The tornado killed 21 people and destroyed more than 500 homes and damaged more than 1,500 others. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 2,000 people have registered for federal aid since the four counties were declared as federal disaster areas.

Tart said the affected families are holding up well so far, but remain anxious. "Many are thankful they have their health, and they're grateful for all the volunteers. There was a catastrophic loss of life here, it was a very devastating storm. But people are really pulling together."

Lake County is home to the Groundhog Camp, which is housing hundreds of volunteer disaster workers. While the county is helping support the volunteer camp, the Christian Contractors Association (CCA) is coordinating the volunteers coming through. Many are from AmeriCorps. "They're mostly doing debris removal and 'dry-ins' at this point," said Shanna Jager of CCA.

Jager visited the affected areas with CCA relief teams and said the damage is shocking. "It looks like a bomb went off, and it's heartbreaking."

She said the CCA will work for at least five or six more weeks with volunteers in the area, and that monetary, building supply and equipment donations remain the most helpful response from the public.

After also assisting in the immediate relief phase, the Rev. Bill Wealand is now shifting his congregation toward the long-term recovery as well. Pastor of the United Church of Christ at the Villages, Wealand said his church has received a gift that will help the families recover over time.

"We received the offer of the long-term use of a home in this area that we'll convert into lodging for volunteer work groups," said Wealand.

He and two congregational members are also attending regular LASER meetings. The response from his church has been overwhelming, he said, with members donating an estimated 30 days of volunteer service so far. Members are volunteering at the supply distribution center, handing out information about how to get federal aid, and bringing food to those in need.

"It's amazing," he said of their response. The same word describes the outpouring of support from other United Churches of Christ from around the state and U.S. Wealand said the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ is fielding those calls now and organizing its long-term response, which will include volunteer work groups, financial support and spiritual care.

The members of Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (FLVOAD) are still maintaing regular contact for the long-term response, and the Volusia Interfaith / Interagency Networking in Disaster is meeting as well.

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More links on Disaster Recovery


Related Links:

Florida Baptist Convention

Christian Contractors Association

United Church of Christ at The Villages

Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ

Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster

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