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Damage in Florida Keys challenges relief efforts


SOUTHERN FLORIDA (Oct. 1, 1998) -- The challenges on the road to recovery

here are daunting.

Just 10 percent of residents have power and it may be nearly three

weeks before all power and telephones will be working. Thousands of damaged or

destroyed homes and counting; at least half of those homes may be uninsured.

Debris everywhere. One traffic-snarled route in and out of the islands.

Bewildered and displaced people. High risk of infection from standing

water. One working radio station. Hot weather. Bugs.

In the wake of Hurricane Georges, the challenges are many in the Florida

Keys. Some are serious, like feeding thousands of people without power.

Some are just irritating, like the humid weather and the mosquitoes.

Amazingly, the prevailing mood is still optimistic, said the Rev.

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

Pine United 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. "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 awhile we had an 83-year-old woman serving as our shelter manager.

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


President Clinton declared the Keys a disaster area on Tuesday, and the

list of response organizations and government agencies is slowly growing:

the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Florida Division of

Emergency Management, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Church World Service,

United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Catholic

Charities, Southern Baptist Convention, Episcopalian and Presbyterian

churches, and


Big Pine Key was the most severely damaged island, sustaining the

heaviest storm surge, which sent an 8-foot wall of water directly across

its seven-foot elevation. Recovery efforts there are being coordinated

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


St. Peters Catholic Church is feeding nearly 2,000 people a day. With

hot meals from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., the church also serves as a shelter for

displaced hurricane survivors. Donations of supplies and food have been

arriving in a steady stream.

"We got a bank of showers from the Salvation

Army, supply kits from the Red Cross, and local pizza parlors donated pizza

for one night's dinner. I'm not even sure where all the trucks (bringing

donations) are coming from," said Connie Hauk, a volunteer.

St. Peters will also be a staging area for "Operation Cover-Up," when

more than 1,000 homes with roof damage will be covered with Visquine, 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 Natural Disaster (FIND),

which is coordinating Operation Cover-Up with the Christian Contractors, an

organization of professional builders who volunteer to help during


"Roofers and framers are usually the best people to wrap homes, but

unskilled volunteers can help clear the extensive debris," she said.

Disaster response officials worry that, as media coverage subsides,

needed volunteers will not materialize. "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. "Many of them are in shock."

While volunteers are seriously needed, housing them is difficult on the

small chain of islands. Motels are still full of emergency workers such as

doctors, nurses, utility workers, and insurance adjusters.

The Silver Palm United Methodist Church in Homestead has offered its

property in Sugarloaf Key for large tents and motor homes to house

volunteer workers.

"We are asking volunteers to bring in their own supplies

so they're not a drain locally," said the Rev. David Beers. "We've been

coordinating volunteer teams from here, trying to arrange housing for them

or send them on one-day trips because there's just not a lot of space in

the Keys."

Hurricane survivors and disaster response staff are also challenged by

the lack of communication. No power means no television, and phone service

is still down in 90 percent of the Keys.

But one radio station,

broadcasting live on the air via a generator, has been providing

information, updates, and moral support during the storm and after. US 1

Radio, headquartered in Big Pine Key, receives information from disaster

response organizations, then promptly broadcasts it in place of regular


"I've got three exhausted employees," said Nancy Michaels, US 1 Radio

spokesperson. "We're been doing extended emergency information broadcasts

for a week now. We like to think that we're helping to pull the community

together. What else could we do?"

Elderly people, absentee owners, and mobile home residents are all

groups who may have trouble finding out how to get help, said Derrith.

"Venture Out, a retirement community on the ocean side, was heavily

damaged. A lot of the residents are highly anxious. There will be some

ongoing mental health needs here. Today, I asked a volunteer to paint a

large sign for the churchyard that says, 'If you want to come in, come on

in! The church is open!'

Posted October 1, 1998

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