Case managers help storm survivors return lives to normalcy

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Case managers help storm survivors return lives to normalcy

April 28, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando  {0283}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — Margaret Harris didn't know what to do after Hurricane Jeanne left her roof in serious disrepair, but her daughter did.

Harris's daughter contacted the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center (SRC) in Lakeland. A work team soon arrived at Harris's Inverness home, and the work began.

"They did a great job," said Harris, a widow. "They were wonderful. They were kind. They brought my mail in to me. They spoiled me to death."

Harris is only one of thousands of people the SRC has helped in the wake of the hurricanes that rocked the state last fall.

The Florida Conference established the SRC at the conference center in Lakeland after Hurricane Charley as the operations center for the conference's response. During the relief phase immediately after the storms, the SRC served as a central hub from which dozens of volunteers worked to respond to needs throughout the state. Help for Harris and others has been coordinated from that point.

Harris is appreciative of the help and said she formed a special bond with the volunteers, who were from a small Ohio town where Harris attended college years ago.

"They were just so nice," said Harris, who has been a member of First United Methodist Church, Inverness, for 47 years. "They totally re-roofed my house and even did some work on my family room that was damaged."

While the storms of 2004 are only bad memories for Harris, thousands of people in affected areas throughout the state are struggling to piece their lives back together. For them the real work has only just begun, with help from SRC case managers.

ARCADIA — This mother and her seven children appreciate the help they received from Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center Case Manager Gricel Hernandez and volunteers. The family's home was destroyed during the hurricanes last fall. Photo courtesy of Gricel Hernandez, Photo #05-0159.

Case managers work with storm survivors on a one-on-one basis to develop personalized recovery plans. They help families through the process of dealing with the disaster — through rebuilding, finding employment if it was lost during one of the storms, counseling, relocating and securing financial assistance for special needs. It's the backbone of the work being done by the SRC in what is called the recovery phase — the long-term response.

The SRC has four case management supervisors and seven case managers who supervise a team of volunteer case managers. The volunteer case managers work directly with families to deliver services, as well as oversee volunteer work teams.

"Our case managers are involved in managing approximately 1,000 cases," said Marilyn Swanson, project director for the SRC. 

Swanson said the caseload varies each week, but each case manager should ideally be handling only 30 cases at any one time. "Our caseloads vary from 20 to 250," Swanson said. "We are currently importing data from 14 locations into a master database so we can track information."

Swanson said the SRC also provides information to Coordinated Assistance Network (CAN), which shares information between agencies involved in disaster case management.  "This entire response is a cooperative, collaborative effort assisting those in need," she said.

Denise Gilliam, voluntary agency liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), said she relied heavily on SRC "every hour of the day" to assist people with special needs, which includes seniors, those who are physically challenged or people who have children who are ill. She estimates she referred 500 to 1,000 cases to the SRC after arriving in Florida Aug. 22.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Florida Conference performed miracles," said Gilliam, who has since left Florida to help Californians recover from recent mudslides. "They did absolutely everything they could to help people. Other agencies would say they would try to help when we asked for assistance, but we didn't know for sure. We knew we could count on the SRC."

Gilliam said SRC staff and volunteers were always calm, patient, organized and never rattled by being pulled in so many different directions.

"They were incredible and reliable," Gilliam said. "We knew we could count on them to get things done. In the days and weeks following the storms, I grew more and more confident in their ability to help. They are greatly appreciated by us."

While FEMA's work is coming to close in Florida, other agencies are just getting started. The SRC is working collaboratively with many of them, serving as a resource for training, software, grants and work teams.

LaDonna Perry said she is working with storm survivors who are just starting their recovery phase.

Perry is coordinator of Christians Helping in the Recovery Process (CHIRP) in Hardee County. She said 75 percent of homes in the area received severe damage and homeowners are just beginning to seek out organizations for assistance. CHIRP has 230 open cases and receives more with each passing day, according to Perry.

"The people are just devastated. Most have no money or just a little," she said. "We probably have 25 clients who haven't even started recovery. They just don't know which way to turn. I can look down the street and still see blue tarps on roofs. We're making a dent, but it's scary to know we're heading into hurricane season and so many people still need help."

CHIRP got its start in October 2004 with strong financial and operational support from UMCOR. The organization also received a grant of $21,400 from the SRC, as well as training and software, and SRC case mangers communicate frequently with CHIRP, according Swanson.

"We are viewed as a resource in developing case managers and handling cases," Swanson said.

CHIRP also works with the American Red Cross, FEMA, Salvation Army and other organizations to assist survivors.

Debi Jensen, SRC case management supervisor for Charlotte and Lee counties, said her case managers are juggling about 400 open cases and seeing some progress with their task of completely restoring four homes in Charlotte County to their pre-storm status.

Jensen, a member of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, said 70,000 FEMA applications were filed in the two counties. She said many people are just realizing the level of damage to their homes, such as one elderly woman who lives alone and thought she only had a minor leak in her roof. Upon further inspection, volunteers determined the leak had caused significant mold damage and the entire interior structure needed to be rebuilt. Jensen said the woman now loans out a bedroom in her restored home for other elderly people while work is being done to their homes.

"There was another woman I noticed in church (Port Charlotte United Methodist Church where Jensen has office space) one day, and I asked her how she was doing," Jensen said. "She said her damage was not as bad as that of her neighbors, and the more I talked with her, the more I realized she needed our help. We are now in the process of working with her."

Jensen said these cases are typical, with "new ones being discovered all the time." She said the numbers of homeless people in Charlotte County has mushroomed from 275 in 2004 to 3,000 as of Jan. 31, not including 1,000 homeless children.

"I know there are a lot of disasters that have happened all around the world since the hurricanes, but that doesn't lessen the need here," Jensen said. "It happened months ago, but that doesn't mean that the work is gone or is even remotely done. It's a long process ... There is a lot more work to do."

Dawn Oliver, SRC case management supervisor for Brevard County, said 342 homes were either damaged or destroyed when the three storms hit the area.

"People are just getting started to enter the recovery phase. It's been slow," she said.

Karen Gammage, who works with Highlands Emergency Recovery Operation (HERO), agrees with Oliver and says there's still much work to be done, adding HERO has 125 open cases.

"We receive cases where people have lost a few shingles off their roofs to the entire contents of their homes to bed-ridden people who need help to recover," said Gammage. "We will bounce back, but it's going to take assistance. It's been very, very hard."

HERO received training and software from the SRC, as well as a grant of $20,000, and Gammage says First United Methodist Church in Sebring has referred clients to the organization.

Steward Gaylord, director of Rebuild Polk After Disaster (RPAD), said the recovery process has also been difficult in Polk County. He said the county has 20,000 uninhabitable homes, and his organization has 600 open cases. The organization works collaboratively with the SRC, which has provided $46,000 in funding for RPAD's case manager, training in case management and oversight of the case management process. RPAD also works with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way.

"We help people who have exhausted all their financial assistance and are still trying to get houses done, also with clean-up and counseling," said Gaylord, who is employed by Lutheran Services and Lutheran Disaster Response. "There are still so many people who don't know what to do or where to go."

Gaylord said so many people have moved on from the storms and forgotten about survivors.

"People need to be reminded that there are people who still have needs," he said. "Those people need money, and that money has got to come from people who care about other people."

Harris is appreciative of the group who came to her rescue.

"It's a wonder my roof didn't cave in," she said. "I'm glad they came. I'm glad it's over. I don't want to think about those horrible storms."


Florida Conference United Methodists are encouraged to send contributions to "Florida Storm Recovery Fund" Conference Special #605 to their local church. Church offerings should be sent to the Florida Conference Treasurer, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 3767, Lakeland, FL 33802.

Groups interested in assisting with rebuilding and recovery efforts should contact the Florida Storm Recovery Center at 800-282-8011, extension 149. The Florida Conference Storm Recovery Team can be contacted by e-mail at

Donations for recovery may also be made to UMCOR Advance #982410, "Hurricanes 2004," and dropped into church offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. People donating by credit card can call 800-554-8583.

For storm recovery news and updates go to

This article relates to Florida Conference Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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