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Relief efforts focus on Florida Keys

BY PJ HELLER | KEY WEST, Fla. | October 3, 1998

KEY WEST, Fla. (Oct. 3, 1998) - Damage assessments from Hurricane Georges

continued to mount in the Florida Keys as relief workers made their

way to more remote and previously inaccessible areas.

While officials at various agencies, gave widely varying figures on the

number of homes damaged or destroyed, what was clear, was

that cleanup, recovery and rebuilding efforts would take a long time to


The Florida Department of Emergency Management said Friday morning that

1,500 homes in the Keys were damaged by Georges. Forty percent of those

homes suffered major damage or were destroyed according to state officials.

Damage estimates were put at $250 million.

But the American Red Cross reported that at least 3,600 homes were

affected by the storm, including 480 which were destroyed and 850 which were


"It's going to be another week until we have a better grip on the numbers,

to understand where this water went and the damage it did," said Elizabeth

Quirk, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.

On Friday, Red Cross teams discovered previously uncounted and extensive

damage to Venture Out, the largest mobile home park on Cudjoe Key, where

more than half of the 659 units were destroyed.

"What we're finding now is the damage is bigger than we thought it was,"

Quirk said. "Our figures went up almost 1,000 in one day. And they'll go up

again because of the trailer park. We have over 3,000 homes affected right


"Our infrastructure is in good shape," said Virginia Panico of the Key West

Chamber of Commerce. "But we're not ready to properly serve visitors until

our utilities are restored and our citizens finish solving individual

problems caused by the storm."

Those individual problems in Key West and throughout the Keys could be


On Friday, following a meeting between federal and county officials, the

county said homes that were substantially damaged will have to be raised

three to 15-feet as part of the repairs.

Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay for

only a portion of the costs to raise the homes. Ruling out anything less

than full compliance, a county official warned, "There will be no


Even so, the current prevailing mood is still optimistic, said the Rev.

Richard Derrith, who is overseeing recovery operations at the Big Pine


Methodist Church in Big Pine Key.

"We as clergy and the rest of the disaster response folks across the

islands are trying to coordinate so we don't duplicate our efforts," he

said earlier this week. "Right now we're still meeting immediate needs. A

lot of elderly people, for example, just want someone to call or come by to

say, 'If you need us, we're here.'

"For a while, we had an 83-year-old woman serving as our shelter manager,"

he said. "She made everyone sign in, and when the police came to help with

their canines, she even signed the dogs in. This was a woman who lost

everything, but she took several days to help others before went to stay

with family members."

President Clinton has declared the Keys, as well as other storm-ravaged

parts of the Gulf Coast, a disaster area.

Monetary donations from faith-based organizations and businesses have begun

pouring in.

Catholic Charities USA has sent $25,000 to the help operate relief centers

in Big Pine Key and Key West. It also sent another $35,000 to help in

relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

"These cash donations give the people who are coordinating relief efforts

on site more flexibility to meet

the particular needs in their community, whether those needs are food,

generators or baby products,"' said Jane Gallagher, director of disaster

response for Catholic Charities USA.

The United Jewish Appeal launched a national effort to collect funds to

assist people affected by Georges.

"We call upon members of the Jewish community to be sensitive to all those

who are in distress and to participate in helping to alleviate their

suffering,'' said Steven B. Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief donated $10,000 to the Florida

Conference to aid in recovery efforts in the Keys.

Among the faith-based organizations involved in the Keys recovery is Church

World Service, the Salvation Army, Lutheran

Disaster Response, Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Catholic

Charities, Southern Baptist Convention, as well as Episcopalian and



Recovery efforts on Big Pine Key, which suffered extensive damage when the

storm surge sent an 8-foot wall of water directly across the island's

seven-foot elevation, are being

coordinated through Big Pine UMC, St. Peters Catholic Church and Big Pine

Baptist Church.

More than 200 volunteers representing Florida Baptist churches have been on

site in the Florida Keys to help residents recover in the aftermath of

Georges. The volunteer teams, organized by the Florida Baptist Convention

in Jacksonville and the Southern Baptist Convention, have been assisting in

cleanup and recovery, child care, providing medical supplies and offering

financial assistance to those in need.

Churches are also assisting in "Operation Cover-Up," a program to cover

more than 1,000 homes with roof damage with Visquine. The product is a

housewrap that was used successfully after the surge of tornadoes in

central Florida several months ago.

"These cover-up efforts are crucial, and we are in need of both skilled and

unskilled volunteers," said Jody Hill, executive director of Florida

Interfaith Networking in Disasters (FIND), which is coordinating Operation

Cover-Up with the Christian Contractors, an organization of professional

builders who volunteer to help during disasters.

Disaster response officials worry that, as media coverage subsides, needed

volunteers will not materialize. Housing in the Keys was also in short


"The damage may not be as bad as it could have been, but for the people who

lost their homes, it's the worst," said Tita Parham, communications

director for the Florida United Methodist Church.

Updated Oct. 9, 1998

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