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'Boat People' among FL Keys challenges


KEY WEST, FL (Oct. 2, 1998 - Baptist Press) -- The White Street

Baptist church van pulled up alongside one of Key West's wind-beaten

shorelines -- strewn with trash, seaweed, branches, leaves and wreckage of

fishing boats in the sand.

Pastor Rafeal Melian left the van and strolled to the water's edge

waving his arms in the air, an effort to motion a fleet of fishermen

laboring nearby.

When four boaters had made their way to the shore, pastor Melian

opened the van doors and began to distribute free lunches to the weary,

barefoot, unshaven and sun-beaten group. Within minutes, a crowd

gathered to take part in the feast, a welcomed hot meal for the group

who is attempting to salvage their boats, belongings and livelihood

from the blast of Hurricane Georges.

Several in the crowd tearfully thanked Melian for the food,

victims of the Category 2 storm that racked the Southern Keys Sept. 25.

According to Melian who translated for the mostly Hispanic group,

Xiochmara Hernandez said "We are so thankful. No one cared about us but God

and the church. We will forever be grateful."

Hernandez's family was among a small group of fishermen known as

"boat people" that weathered the 18-hour storm's sheets of rain, high

storm surge and 105 mph winds aboard small fishing boats they call home.

"The water and waves got so high; we were so scared," she said. Unable

to speak English and lack of communication with the islanders, "we

didn't know there was anywhere for us to go."

Hernandez and her family lost all their belongings to the raging

sea, but salvaged their boat, more fortunate than some whose vessels lay

underwater a few yards offshore.

"Fishing is their livelihood,"

said Miguel de La Cruz, a disaster-relief team member with the Florida

Baptist Convention. "They are just thankful they still have their boats,

without them they would not survive." According to de La Cruz, the only

thing they asked for were "new mattresses to sleep on" to replace ones

ruined by water or swept out to sea.

The first direct hit on the Keys since Hurricane Donna in 1960,

Georges' furry especially took aim at the houseboats, mobile home parks

and low-lying areas. Georges tore apart at least 12 of 26 houseboats in

Key West's famous Houseboat row.

Trees, signs and power lines toppled

over in the wind. Transformers exploded. Roaring seas rushed across

several parts of the 125-mile string of islands. In some areas, the

storm surge was reported as high as 12 feet, leaving homes flooded with

up to four feet of water.

In total, Hurricane Georges caused an estimated $200 million in

insured losses, state officials said. More than 1,500 homes were

destroyed or severely damaged including 614 mobile homes and 75

houseboats. Of that total, 173 homes were completely destroyed. However,

structures in the famous Key West historical district remained mostly


Clark Keygard lost his entire house, now just a pile of ruins

along Houseboat Row. Only nine months earlier, 70 percent of Key West's

voters approved a ballot referendum to save the notorious colorful strip

of boats harbored along U.S. 1. "I watched the row go one by one," he

said, pointing to the barge where he and his wife road out the storm.

"It was terrible. Our boat was still up when it got dark."

In the week following the storm, thousands of Lower Key

residents and businesses have dealt with loss of electricity and lack of

water. According to reports in the Miami Herald, damage to more than 100

of the 60-foot concrete posts that carry power lines from Miami-Dade

County has complicated matters.

It may be several weeks before everyone on the most damaged

islands has power.

In response to the hurricane, three mobile feeding kitchens-from

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina Southern Baptist Conventions -- with a

capability of each feeding more than 5,000 meals a day -- were

established at a Key West church, in Big Pine Key and Summerland Key.

During the first four days, the units served over 35,000 meals

to residents, and relief workers which represented city work crews,

telephone and power workers, FHP and U.S. Coast Guard. Additional meals

were delivered to elderly and homebound victims.

Coast Guard volunteer Gary Brown, who took a break from helping

the relief efforts to eat a bit of lunch, called the feeding unit a

"perfect" solution for the victims. "With no electricity, they can't

cook. This feeding is like a home away from home," he said.

Posted October 2, 1998

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