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Rebuilding continues after FL tornadoes


WINTER GARDEN, FL (Dec. 14, 1998) -- Driving down Pine Street, it's hard to

believe that a killer tornado touched down nearby in February. Traffic is

thick along this thoroughfare, but it's moving; shoppers bustle in and out

of shops; and a December sun burns warm in a powder blue sky. Yes, life

seems like it is back to normal in this Florida town.

Yet a block away, in a large white house behind the United Methodist Church, a

group of people are busy coordinating the renovations for 12 Winter Garden

homes. This is the base for Operation L.O.V.E. (Linking Our Volunteer

Efforts), an organization which united local churches after the tornado tore

through Orange County to assist uninsured and underinsured property owners.

For them, the relief effort is still several months from closure.

Volunteers and monetary donations are still required to finish the

organization's work in Winter Garden. "If I had to choose between them, I'd

pick (volunteers)," said Veith Ward, Operation L.O.V.E.'s Construction

Coordinator. "We have a big need for skilled construction workers."

Until the end of the summer, volunteers streamed in to help. "We'd get

waves of people on the weekends -- sometimes more than a hundred. They were

mostly faith-related youth groups," continued Ward. "But the fall hit us


There are still at least three Habitat-style homes to be rebuilt and at

least another five need repairs. "Some people have

issues to clear up," explained Lisa Higley, Operation L.O.V.E.'s Program

Director. "Some of these families didn't realize how important it was to

document the money received from FEMA and insurance companies and how they've

spent it. And we can't help them."

Operation L.O.V.E. has been working closely with the American Red Cross and

the Salvation Army. The latter, according to Higley, is now supplying

appliances and carpeting to Winter Garden families.

The Church of the Brethren also joined in the relief effort. Ralph and Lois

Thwaite spent last August in Winter Garden. While not members of the Church

of Brethren, the retired Virginia couple has spent years participating in

their disaster response efforts. "My husband is very skilled in building,

and I did food preparation, shopping, and went out for lumber and part


The Winter Garden twister was one of many that spun through Central Florida

that February night. Seminole, Osceola, and Volusia counties sustained

significant property damage and loss of life: 3,611 homes and buildings

destroyed or damaged and 42 dead. This was Florida's deadliest and, at more

than $30 million, the most expensive tornado outbreak.

With 25 dead and more than 1,300 structures in need of rebuilding or repairs,

Kissimmee, in Osceola County, fared the worst. The Salvation Army has 55 to

60 active cases -- homes that are at various stages of rebuilding. "We're

assisting one family that lost their module home with temporary living

expenses. We just started working with them at the beginning of November.

They've had emotional trauma to deal with." said the Salvation Army's Jeanie


The Osceola Interfaith Emergency Coalition, which has served as a referral

organization between those in need and relief agencies, and the Wyman Fields

Foundation are helping to rebuild Osceoloa homes. The American Red Cross,

the Christian Service Center, Catholic Social Services, and other local groups

have donated money, labor, and supplies.

In Seminole County, where 12 died and more than 300 structures were destroyed

or damaged, there is a need for volunteers. "Five properties need total

rebuilding," said Hadley. "Three of those we have received funding for. In

one of those cases, the insurance company paid off their existing mortgage,

but now the family is starting from scratch. The other two are very low

income, and they had no insurance at all. We've been able to secure funding

and have setup a schedule of volunteer builders for them."

In addition to rebuilds, seven Seminole County homes are being repaired.

The damage ranges from roof repairs to $7,000 in renovations. The Salvation

Army has secured the funds to purchase supplies for these projects.

Volunteer recruits are desired for painting, refurnishing, and landscaping.

"In Seminole, a rural area, the tornado hit properties that are shared by

livestock. And there needs to be fencing in place. This may seem petty to

those who live the city, but this is how the family survives," Hadley said.

Along side the Salvation Army, Seminole Heart, Wyman Fields, and the Mennonite

Disaster Service (MDS) are contributing their efforts in restoring the lives

of Seminole County residents.

Virgil Kauffman, MDS's Project Coordinator, said that by the end of March

Mennonite volunteers will have built a total of 12 houses. That's when they

expect to pull out.

"Most of volunteers are short termers," Kauffman said. He

and his wife came to Seminole County six months ago. "Last week we had 15 in

from Saskatchewan, Germany, Michigan, and Florida. This week we'll have 27

volunteers from Virginia and Pennsylvania. We're going to finish a house and

do some electrical wiring, plumbing, trim painting, framing, and masonry."

Since arriving last March, Mennonite workers have been based in two Sanford


Posted Dec. 14, 1998

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