Groundhog Day: a year later in FL

"Every day, we find something new," one responder reports as recovery continues.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | February 2, 2008

"Every day, we find something new. As the cleanup work goes on, there is someone new who needs help. This is not something that had a quick fix."

—Rev. Karen Thompson, Minister for Disaster Response & Recovery for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ

It was a warm night in Florida on Groundhog Day 2007, when a tornado roared through rural Lake County, leaving death and destruction in its wake. A year later, rebuilding and recovery are still in progress.

"Every day, we find something new," said the Rev. Karen Thompson, Minister for Disaster Response & Recovery for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ. "As the cleanup work goes on, there is someone new who needs help. This is not something that had a quick fix."

Nearly 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 21 people were killed by the twisters that struck shortly after 3 a.m. Feb. 2, 2007.

Thompson asked a long-term volunteer to work with the Lake and Sumter Emergency Response committee (LASER) to continue to facilitate the rebuilding process. She said the UCC volunteer is tasked with continuing to find what is needed and to coordinate teams of volunteers from the United Church of Christ to go out and do the work.

Michael Tart, CEO of LASER, said the process dragged through last spring and summer, while insurance claims were filed. At the time, short term housing solutions for those who were working on that process and for those who had no insurance, was a priority. As summer blazed into fall and continued into winter, the insurance process continued. Volunteers continued to try to help residents move into transitional housing and to try to begin the rebuilding process.

Tart said there have been problems in some cases with renters who would like to stay in houses that out-of-town owners don't want to rebuild. Many who live in the rural community were getting by paycheck to paycheck. They can't afford to rebuild, especially when the owner has no desire to help.

"But we have about 25 to 30 cases we are wrapping up and about 25 more who we are trying to get through the process to get them SHIP homes," he said

The tornadoes that ravaged the area reduced some homes to splinters, leaving only a foundation if there was one at all to mark where the residents had lived. In more populated areas, whole streets of mobile homes were blown away, but in some areas, there are streets not even marked on any map. Johnson said, even now, some of that damage is just being discovered.

"We've been going and just trying to ask if there is anyone who needs help and every day we find someone new who is still picking up the pieces," she said.

Pam Garrison of the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church said the disaster relief efforts were sometimes hampered by the simple fact that many of the residents are not the property owners and they will not be able to afford to replace the homes where they lived with something else. That's why the recovery organizations are still working to find the money to get the victims of the tornadoes into a place to start their lives again.

Recovery has been complicated by a second tornado event on Sept. 21 that damaged several dozen more homes, Tart explained.

"It's a never-ending process," he said. "We are still working with about six cases from the 2004 storms even."

Many of the volunteers who pulled scraps of metal and glass from the confetti of people's dreams a year ago have been replaced by teams in the office that are focused on trying to coordinate financial resources to fund a rebuilding process.

Tart added that the coordinated effort of volunteers from faith-based organizations has been the backbone of the recovery effort. He said the church disaster recovery organizations have provided everything from back-breaking labor at the very beginning to emotional support for victims on a daily basis. He said the church support has made the work move more smoothly and the assistance to victims more humane.

"It has been a great partnership," he said.

Like any recovery effort, Garrison said, there have been challenges and setbacks, but she has a fulltime coordinator in place working with LASER and she believes that everything possible is being done to move the survivors along to a place where they will be ready to start their lives over with a permanent place to live and the support to keep them going forward.

The emotional damage from those who survived the storms keeps volunteers from local churches busy as well, Tart added. Heavy wind and rain a few weeks ago did no physical damage, he said, but there were calls to LASER from those who were frightened and needed some spiritual and emotional support.

"We try to take care of whatever needs they have," he said.

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