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Volunteers desperately needed to help in Keys

BY PJ HELLER | BIG PINE KEY, FL | October 27, 1998

BIG PINE KEY, FL (Oct. 27, 1998) -- The sky is bright blue, punctuated

by only a few white puffy clouds. The sun glints off the water on both

sides of the Overseas Highway, creating a pattern of sparkles and diamonds.

Boats drift lazily on the water, in no apparent hurry to get to their


At first glance, life seems to have returned to normal in the Florida

Keys a month after Hurricane Georges hit. And in an area that depends

almost entirely on tourist dollars for its livelihood, that is exactly the

message that the business community is beaming to the rest of the world.

But behind the scenes, off the main roads in some of the Keys, life

remains miserable and uncertain for many people. They have lost their

homes, their cars, their lifetime accumulation of possessions.

Nowhere are two sides of a story more at odds than in the Florida Keys.

Depending on who you speak with and where you happen to be in the 130-mile

chain of islands, life is either great or ghastly, bright or bleak,

lighthearted or lugubrious.

The most severely affected residents appear to be the ones who can least

afford the losses. Most lived in mobile homes and eked out a living

catering to tourists, working in restaurants and shops for low wages.

Others were retirees, living on a fixed income.

Their mobile homes today lay tossed and turned, testament to the fury of

the storm which hit the Keys on Sept. 25 packing winds in excess of 100

miles per hour. There is little left for people to come home to -- more

than 1,500 mobile homes were damaged or destroyed -- and even less for them

to salvage.

Roadsides remain piled high with every imaginable type of debris, from

washing machines and refrigerators to mattresses and tree branches. As you

drive U.S. 1 toward Key West, you can't help but notice the steady stream

of dump trucks heading toward the mainland filled with rubble.

Even so, in some areas, notably Big Pine and Cudjoe keys, signs of the

devastation remain clearly visible more than a month after the storm. Parts

of boats are scattered on land, against homes and in fields and even in

trees. Clothes are all over the ground, covered in mud and dirt. Cars sit

smashed under tree limbs.

"I'm just thankful we're alive," said one little girl. "We don't have

anything left."

Despite the devastation and the struggle to put lives back together,

businesses are busy looking at ways to lure tourists back to the area.

"We are happy to report the Florida Keys and Key West tourism community

came through Hurricane Georges just fine," the Monroe County Tourism

Commission told the world. "If you have plans to visit the Keys, keep them.

And if you don't, make them. There's never been a better time to come down,

kick back and enjoy."

A major radio and television ad blitz was running in October extolling

the virtues of the Keys. Key West was also readying for its gala 10-day

Fantasy Fest, an annual event that is expected to attract 60,000 revelers.

"Don't say anything bad about what's going on," one motel owner urged a

visiting journalist.

Others, like Pastor Charlie Sexton of the Big Pine Baptist Church,

couldn't help but notice the dichotomy.

"The chamber of commerce, from Big Pine all the way down, would like

everybody to think that nothing happened, that it was just a little wind

storm and it's gone," he said. "But that's not what happened by any stretch

of the imagination. The reality of the situation is there are still a lot

of people out of their homes. There are a lot of hurting folks."

Monroe County Commissioner Keith Douglass said officials needed to

project a positive image so as not to negatively impact the tourist-based

economy. He compared the situation to the stock market, where negative news

can send the market plummeting.

"It's the same thing with a tourist-based economy," he said. "It can be

affected dramatically by comments or negative factors within the county. So

we have to be carefully balancing the need to put a positive image on a

place that is a tremendous asset to the entire country and the world on one

hand with people who are suffering on the other."

Douglass noted that some areas, like Key West, were less affected by the

storm than areas like Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key and Marathon, where a total

of some 2,500 homes, trailers and apartments were damaged or destroyed.

"So you have areas which are not as dramatically affected that want to

get back to normal and other areas where they are dramatically affected

that are saying, "How come our neighbors are not having the compassion they

should have?'

"You also have the paradox of people who are affected by the hurricane

still having to make a living, and many of those make a living in a

tourist-based economy," he added. "So they have to fix their roofs and get

the problems solved in their homes and property. On the other hand, they

have to go back to work. If the tourist economy winds down, then you have

the problem of they're not able to earn a living. Those are the challenges

we're facing. We're trying to balance the needs of individuals with the

need to keep the community economically viable."

The American Red Cross, meantime, has consolidated its operations into a

single location on Big Pine Key and representatives from the Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Small Business Administration remain

on-site. Through Oct. 21, FEMA had fielded more than 10,500 calls for aid

from throughout the Keys.

Faith-based organizations were beginning to mount a concerted relief

effort through the newly formed Paradise Interfaith Network. Among the

greatest needs are volunteers from faith-based organizations outside the


But attracting those volunteers has been complicated by the message from

the tourism commission that "everything is OK down here," noted Jessica

Smith, who is working with Lutheran Disaster Response on Big Pine Key.

"People are under the impression that we don't need any help," she said,

noting that an appeal for help sent to 40 churches in South Florida

resulted in only two telephone responses.

"We need food and we need help," said the Rev. Tony Mullane of St.

Peter's Catholic Church on Big Pine Key.

Mullane, who has spent 20 years in the Keys, said he understands the

push for tourists while he and others struggle to attract volunteers to aid

in relief efforts.

"I was in Key West for 10 years," he said. "I have an equal amount of

affection for the people down there as I do here. I understand their

economic problems. But we do have hurricane-related problems here. We have

housing problems. We have people without electricity. We have people who

are hungry. We have people without jobs."

Mullane, better known as "Father Tony," is optimistic that volunteers

from up north, hoping to escape the winter cold and wanting to lend a

helping hand, will be willing to spend time in the Keys in the coming

months. He promises to find a place for them to stay; those in RVs might be

able to stay at Bahia Honda State Park, a seaside attraction currently

closed due to the storm.

"We're praying and we're hoping and we're trying to set up for these

people who are going to come in," Mullane said, adding that invitations

have gone out to various denominations.

"How lucky we're going to be, who knows?" he said. "But we'll do what we

can do."

Posted October 27, 1998

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