Reconstruction begins following FL tornadoes

BY KAREN BOTHAM | SANFORD, FL | April 30, 1998

SANFORD, FL (April 30, 1998) -- Walter Lee believes in miracles. The 49-year-old Sanford, Fla., resident

believes the only reason he's alive today is by the grace of God.

"I was at the back door when the tornado hit. It snatched the door out of

my hand and I had to jump out (of the house) and I rolled over and over and

I held on to the clothes line pole," Lee said. "That was the most

terrifying thing I've ever experienced."

Lee was lucky; he survived relatively unscathed with just minor cuts and

bruises. Twelve people in Sanford, Fla., died in the Feb. 23 storm. "Five

of my neighbors perished in that," Lee said. "At that time I thought I was

going to die. I thought I was going to get killed. I was calling to God to

spare my


Lee's life was spared, but his home was not. He is now among the hundreds

left homeless by month after month of floods, storms and tornadoes in


Florida. Fortunately for Lee, Seminole County has included his home in a

group of seven "rebuilds" it funded through a Community Development Block


Volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Services are working to get Lee settled

in quickly. He thinks maybe by the end of May he'll be back home. It may take

longer for others in his situation.

Relief workers are still trying to finish assessing the damage from the

widespread disasters in storm-ravaged Florida. Beginning with flooding in

December and deadly tornados in February, the Sunshine State has been

battered so badly that 55 of its 67 counties have been declared federal

disaster areas.

The insurance industry has put the losses in Florida at $165 million, but the

real totals won't be known for months, according to many working with local

interfaith groups in the affected areas.

The first stop for those in need is the federal government. Many people are

still trying to get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,

which doesn't close the registration process from these storms until May 6.

"The bulk of the dollars are being preserved for the case studies to be

finished and for us to go after the serious unmet needs," said Jody Hill,

director of the Florida Interfaith Natural Disaster (FIND).

The FEMA money, or insurance money for those who had insurance on their homes,

doesn't cover all the costs, Hill said. FEMA is capped at $13,400, she said,

and many insurance companies are appraising damages well below actual

repair costs.

In fact some insurance companies are using a loophole in a law designed to

limit damages from hurricanes. Instead of standard deductibles, some

policyholders are finding they have to meet deductibles several times

higher than they thought.

Hill said she and others from her organization are working with displaced

residents to appeal decisions from FEMA and insurance companies.

It's been a month since the last major storm passed through Central Florida,

but it is difficult for volunteers to get to a lot of the areas affected,

said Bill Rhan, disaster response coordinator for the Florida Conference of

the United Methodist Church.

With any luck, the areas hardest hit will be completely assessable soon and

assessments can be finished in the next month. Right now it's just "hurry

up and wait," he said.

Even before the final totals are in, the devastation is apparent. As of mid-

April more than $5.7 million in federal and state monies have been given to

6,178 families for housing rebuilds, according to FEMA. That doesn't

include the $3 million given to 1,085 families for essential needs not

related to housing. Nor does that include the money, products, counseling

and time

donated by hundreds of people working with local charity organizations.

Second Harvest is still giving out 100 to 125 boxes of food on some days to

those documented by FEMA to be included in the disaster area, Rhan said.

"That tells me something economically. Some of the people aren't getting their

jobs back or aren't settling in quickly," he added.

Like many groups, the United Methodists have been on the scene since the

first major storm hit in December. Within 72 hours of any of the major

storms, Rhan said he drove through the areas to begin the process of

helping. He's not alone.

FIND and the Florida Council of Churches are working together to build unity

and teamwork between the different faiths in the area. In each of the three

hardest hit counties of central Florida, a different interfaith group has

been formed, according to Hill.

Seminole Heart works in Seminole County, Operation Love works in Orange County

and Osceola Interfaith Emergency Coalition works in Osceola County.

"All of the denominations are doing something," Hill said. Representatives

from the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Seventh-Day Adventists,

Baptist, United Methodist, Catholic, Jewish and Mennonite communities are

some of those helping with the ecumenical relief work, Rhan said.

"I feel good about it," said Charlie Mueller, the southeastern U.S.

Disaster Relief Facilitator for Church World Service, about the ongoing

relief efforts.

Local pastors and laity are invaluable in bringing the help to those who need

it most but may be unsure of how to ask, Mueller said. Many residents

tucked away in the backroads of Florida don't receive the information they

need to seek out help. Others may not even know help exists or are afraid

of traditional government sources. Locals best know how to get in touch with

this segment of the population.

"The faith community really has a wonderful opportunity to do that," Mueller

said. Using an interfaith approach helps the disaster "heal from the

inside," Rhan said.

It's also important for groups to work together because once the immediate

Response Organizations like FEMA are gone, it's the local faith community that is

still working.

Optimistic estimates put the rebuild time at six months. Rhan said a more

realistic time frame would be two years. Just from the assessments

completed already there are 20 to 30 major rebuilds in Osceola County, 25

to 30 in Orange County and 15 to 19 in Seminole County, he said.

For Lee, the tragedy has left him forever changed.

"I'm more spiritually minded now than before; I see God now more. It makes you

more aware of what can happen," Lee said. "I know it was a miracle.

Posted April 30, 1998

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