Six months after four major hurricanes ripped through the state, churches and relief agencies in Southwest Florida continue to provide aid to thousands of people in need.
But instead of bottles of water and bags of clothing, the most sought-after commodity these days is a permanent place to live.
The sheer number of damaged and destroyed buildings in the hardest-hit areas has slowed the construction, permitting and inspection process to a crawl. In rural DeSoto County, an estimated 85 percent of homes were damaged by Hurricane Charley. And with less than three months to go before the official start of the 2005 hurricane season, pressure is mounting.
"It's not panic time yet, but people are feeling the urgency of knowing that June 1 is hurricane season again and that their roof isn't repaired yet," said Donna Veatch, a Methodist relief worker in Arcadia, the county seat. "And what are they going to do when the rains come?"
Many aid organizations that set up camp shortly after the skies cleared last fall are still around -- and most say they'll have work to do for years to come.
The goals of these groups have evolved as the needs of their communities have changed. Some of the neediest storm victims, such as migrant farmworkers in the area, fall though the cracks of traditional aid sources. Thousands of others are still haggling with insurance companies or slogging though the bureaucracies of federal and state agencies.
The Unmet Needs Committee, a coalition of churches and aid agencies headquartered at Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia, expects to be in operation for at least the next two years. To the south, on Pine Island, a local ecumenical aid ministry is thinking about a five-year plan and beyond.
DeSoto County's largest hurricane relief center is housed in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia.
The church's pastor, the Rev. David Harris, chairs the Unmet Needs Committee, a loose coalition of local churches and aid agencies, including the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Catholic Charities. They meet twice a month to touch base with each other, share concerns and help solve problems.
The committee's job, Harris says, is to provide "truly unmet needs" that no other organization is taking care of. "It may include appliances, it may include materials. It could mean utilities," he said, "a variety of things for people to help them get back on their feet."
"We try to help those who have gone through the system as best they can and still have not been able to recover on their own," explained Donna Veatch, the interim program coordinator at the relief center.
"We do case work on each family… find out what kind of help they may need, it can be counseling, help with dealing with their finances, even help with applying for FEMA grants. They may need minor or major house repairs.
"We have 1,000 cases right now, which is about a third of the number we're expecting. We know that there's still a lot more people" who need help, she said.
Fifty miles to the southwest, nature has begun the healing process on the barrier islands.
Trees that were completely stripped of leaves and bark are turning green again. Ospreys, eagles and other birds are coming back, building nests faster than builders can replace roofs.
On Pine Island, although construction is picking up, bright blue plastic tarps still dot the landscape, covering holes in buildings still waiting to be repaired.
At a four-way stop -- the main intersection on the island -- a storefront operation is bustling on a Monday morning. Caseworkers at the Beacon of H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People Everyday) are starting another new week.
This ministry was born two days after Hurricane Charley hit the island by the pastors of the local Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal churches, including the Rev. Ann McLemore, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Their work has not gone unnoticed in the community. In January, the four clergy shared the honor as the Fort Myers News-Press' Persons of the Year for 2004.
McLemore says the fledging social services agency can provide most anything for people in need, from housing and food to help in dealing with insurance companies.
Psychological counseling is also in great demand. "People are frustrated," she said, over insurance hassles and the wait for contractors and building permits. "We're at the stage now where the hurricane ‘within' is worse than the one outside," she said.
Another challenge is coordinating various volunteer teams that are still coming to help rebuild the island. "We still have work teams coming down. The real responsibility now is coordinating all the volunteers, having projects ready to go and having materials ready for them."
Need for housing
Needs have changed since the first days after the storms, she said. "You don't have some of the really immediate needs like water and food," and the focus has shifted to housing concerns.
Beacon of H.O.P.E., with the help of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club," has provided trailers for one mobile home park used primarily by farmworkers. "We're trying to deliver the trailers pretty much furnished," she said during a recent drive through the area.
McLemore says she would prefer to provide more than another temporary fix, but there are limits to what they can do. "We really had a dilemma," she explained. "On one hand, you feel like you're putting people back in the same box, but on the other hand, these people aren't under any roof if they aren't in the trailers."
One of the goals of Beacon of H.O.P.E. is to address long-term housing needs of the farmworker community. "We're looking at a 5-, 10-, 15-year plan to try to be able to bring to the island affordable, safer housing," McLemore said
The ministry, which includes a task force of local civic and business leaders, is in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit entity called the Pine Island Long-Term Recovery Organization in order to be eligible for various grant funds.
The organization is getting help from diocesan sources, too. The Episcopal Church Women in the Fort Myers Deanery have named Beacon of H.O.P.E. as the recipient of their fund-raising project for the year.
As in Pine Island, housing is the primary goal for most residents near Arcadia. "Initially, they needed to get out of their moldy, leaking homes and into somewhere safe and healthy," Veatch said. "Now they need permanent housing."
Options are limited. "The challenge of finding a place to rent has really been hard. The reality is that land and everything else has gone up in price now."
To answer these needs, the committee has embarked on an ambitious project to build 60 to 100 new houses this year for families whose homes were destroyed and cannot afford to rebuild.
The rebuilding project manager, Enzo Ardovina, says they are building 2-to-4-bedroom homes, with a minimum of 1,000 square feet, at a cost of about $40 a square foot. The homeowners pay what they can, using whatever insurance and FEMA assistance they received, and the committee pays the balance, through grants and other federal funds. "A lot of times, the homeowners were underinsured, or the insurance company says the house is livable, when we say it's not," and won't pay to rebuild, he said.
The homes are being built with volunteer labor. On a recent day at the center, the church was serving lunch to more than 100 volunteers working on seven different building projects scattered throughout the county.
Meanwhile, next door to the relief center, plastic still covers a large portion of the roof of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church. The priest in charge of the congregation, the Rev. Greg Fry, says inspections and securing building permits have been the major hang-up.
"We're waiting for the final OK to get permits to start the work," which should come in March, he said. Structural engineers say the walls are sound and have determined the entire roof will not have to be replaced. Insurance was up to date, he added, saying the congregation will be able to meet the deductible in order for work to begin.
Minor repairs to the parish hall will also be taken care of; the church's rectory, was also heavily damaged and may have to be razed, Fry said.
Parishioners of St. Edmund's are all back in their own homes, Fry said, and they're dealing with the day-to-day hassles. "They're impatient, as anyone would be at this point in time, wanting to see their community back to the way it was, but that's not going to happen any time soon."
When repairs are finally completed at Church of the Good Shepherd in Punta Gorda, the church will have a new look, inside and out.
The bell towers on the west end of the church, which have always leaked, will be removed. The Altar Guild sacristy beside the altar is being moved to open up an area for the choir to sit.
To pay for the renovations, the new sacristy, altar and rail, floors, organ, and sound system, the church has begun a short capital fund drive that will end Sept. 1.
Six months after the storm, the congregation is still holding services -- and most other activities -- in the parish hall.
The narthex, nave and sanctuary are still empty. The roof is finished and the nave's new wood ceiling is in, but it must still be stained.
Pews are still being refurbished, and a new altar is being built. A new organ will be purchased to replace the one destroyed by water damage. Church administrator Denise Cesino says contractors have given them a May 1 completion date.
The church's K-6th grade day school is up and running. The school will add 7th and 8th grade classes next year, but plans to break ground on a new school building have been put on hold.
A ‘new' normal
While life goes on in the communities still recuperating from the storms, everyday life has changed, people involved with recovery efforts are saying.
"It is [getting back to normal], for a lot of folks," said McLemore. "But it's taking on a ‘new' normal. Life isn't going to be exactly how it was before the hurricane."
The hard reality is there are limits to what relief efforts can accomplish. "You're not necessarily trying to better everyone's situation from how it was before," said McLemore. "And for so many people, this was a marginal situation at best before the hurricane. And now the hurricane came and has blown these people completely out."
Veatch, from Arcadia, agreed. "We know we won't even get people back where they were. Certainly we're not going to improve their lives as much as we would like to. There's always more we could do," she said.
Even for those not completely devastated by the storm, day-to-day life is different. "It's very challenging," Cesino in Punta Gorda observed. A lot of businesses still haven't reopened, she said. "I had to go to the dentist the other day in Sarasota, because my dentist's office here was destroyed."
"It's a lot of extra work. You're still dealing with your home, if you still have your home left …You're dealing with contractors." She added materials to rebuild a pool cage are lying in her yard. "We're waiting on permits."
And some things are literally gone with the wind. "If you've lived here a long time and you're used to historical Punta Gorda, it will never ever be normal because the buildings are gone," she said.
How to help:
There are still many ways to help those in need. The following agencies are organizing work teams and providing other specialized services.
They are also, of course, accepting financial donations:
Arcadia: Hurricane Disaster Relief, c/o Trinity United Methodist Church, 304 W Oak St., Arcadia, FL 34266-3918. Phone: 863.494.2543
Pine Island: Beacon of H.O.P.E., 10502 #B Stringfellow Road, Bokeelia, FL 33922. 239.283.5123