|By Michael Wacht
KISSIMMEE Its been seven
months since a deadly string of tornadoes hit Central Florida, leaving twisted homes and
broken lives in their path. But relief efforts begun by the United Methodist Committee on
Relief (UMCOR) in Osceola County are still going strong and making a real difference in
Over and over, theyre [victims] saying: Thank you for being still being
here. Were just now getting into our home, said Lisa Higley, operations
manager for the Osceola Interfaith Emergency Coalition Inc.
The Coalition is a non-profit disaster relief organization of more than 11 area churches
and organizations that grew out of UMCORs efforts at First United Methodist Church,
St. Cloud, after the tornadoes hit. It was incorporated in March with several United
Methodist pastors and lay members serving as officers and board members, and is funded in
part by UMCOR and the Orlando District Emergency Response Committee. Its goal is to
satisfy the unmet needs of disaster victims in Osceola County.
The insurance money is just now paying off, Higley said. People have the
money to fix the major needs, but they cant afford to fix everything. Thats
where we come in. Were coordinating the work that needs to be done with the agencies
that have the expertise in place.
Amparo Estradas family is one of the 211 families the Coalition has helped. A single
mother with a 14-year-old son, Estrada moved to Florida from Colombia, South America, and
lives on a fixed income. During the tornadoes, she lost her roof and several windows, and
rain and power surges damaged most of her homes interior. Because she didnt
have insurance, she received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
which covered many of the repairs, but not all of them.
When a volunteer from the Coalition called her in June, she told him the storms had ruined
her air conditioning unit and damaged her kitchen cabinets. By August, the Coalition had
paid to replace the air conditioner. A United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team from
Virginia installed the new cabinets in October.
God is with me and truly helped me with what I needed, Estrada said.
Thank you to God and to the church for all that youve done for me.
Although groups like the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and FEMA are still providing
help, many people dont know how to access that aid. The staff and volunteers at the
Coalition assist and represent victims in the process of applying for help.
When those avenues of assistance are exhausted, a familys situation is presented to
the Coalitions board. Based on Higleys recommendation, the board decides how
Higley said many of the victims were on fixed incomes before the disaster and have budgets
that cant absorb costs for temporary housing and insurance deductibles. Many were
left with no money for food or clothes.
We furnished $100 each for 135 children to go to Wal-Mart and buy school
clothes, she said.
Higley says 20 families still rely on the Coalition for food and water each month, and
there are more than 65 requests for help that havent been met, including repairing
But there are also emotional needs. When it clouds up, theyre still terrified,
and some go to relatives homes. We have prayed with and encouraged
Higley says. Theres still a lot of fear.