Florida Keys struggle to rebuild

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida Keys struggle to rebuild

Dec. 8, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
tparham@flumc.org   Orlando {0408}

An e-Review Feature
By Nancy E. Johnson**

MARATHON — Debris piles, like this one in Marathon, lined most of the roads in  the lower Keys. Nearly 60 percent of cars were flooded. Photo by the Rev. Deborah McLeod, Photo #05-284.

TAMPA — With nearly half the residents of the Florida Keys spending Christmas in motels or government trailers, several local United Methodist churches are doing what they can to make the season a little more bearable as people rebuild and recover.

The Rev. John Webb believes the storm devastated the lives of at least 80 percent of Keys residents. Webb is pastor of Key West United Methodist Church. Floodwaters came within a block and a half of the church, but the building was untouched.

"Virtually all these homes had from half a foot to three or four feet of water in them for hours," Webb said. "The damage can't compare to the extensive damage in New Orleans from Katrina, but when you've lost all of your household furnishings, appliances and cherished family memories, there is no difference."

Wilma peeled roofs off buildings and sent debris flying through the air. When the winds subsided, floodwaters rushed in. The high winds and flooding also affected the tourist community.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) crews continue to remove storm debris, but their onsite work is scheduled to end Dec. 23. Community leaders are asking for a two-month extension.

"We need more post-storm rehabilitation. When FEMA leaves, people with major damage will be left with demolition debris, so this is a long-standing problem," Webb said.

Big Coppitt United Methodist Church in the lower Keys did not fare as well as Key West United Methodist Church. It suffered so much damage the church's 10 to 12 active members decided at their charge conference to close, according to the Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the South East District of the conference. McLeod said many of the members are relocating, while others live in Key West, 12 miles away. Members could attend nearby Big Pine United Methodist Church.

MARATHON — Marathon Community United Methodist Church in the lower Keys was one of about 100 Florida United Methodist churches damaged during Hurricane Wilma. Water from Florida Bay washed through the sanctary, flowed to the center line of US1 and then flooded back through the sanctuary. Photo by the Rev. Deborah McLeod, Photo #05-285.
Despite their own damages, churches are reaching out to help their neighbors. Community United Methodist Church in Marathon is supporting fishermen whose traps were washed out to sea. Members of the congregation began the Galilee Project and are accepting donations for relief grants to help the commercial fishermen replace their traps.

One of the biggest problems in the Keys is lack of shelters. Many of the elderly and poor are living in motels. When evacuation orders were given, there were only shelters of last resort, buildings that protected people from the storm, but lacked food or water supplies.

Webb reports the homes of at least 70 of his church's members were damaged. One woman in her 80s lived alone in a rental property in a low-income area of Key West. Two to three feet of water crept into her home, forcing her to vacate and move to Tampa to stay with relatives.

Pat Gibson, 67, is a widowed retiree who works part time in the office at Key West United Methodist Church. Three feet of water flooded her 1940s ancestral home in New Town, making it structurally unsafe, unhealthy and unlivable. Her home for now is a FEMA trailer.

"You could see all the water running down the canal. All the grass was dead," Gibson said. "But now, I see one green stalk coming out of my banana plants. It's a little ray of hope."

Hope also came in the form of helping hands. Members of her church family stacked tree limbs and removed debris.  Her co-worker, Nancy Loether, helped box dishes and pack the belongings Gibson could salvage.

"That's the heartbreaker — when I threw out albums from when I was a baby, my dad's diploma. You just can't save it," Gibson said as she fought back tears. "I'm just so grateful, though, for all this good Christian help."

There are many more stories throughout the Florida Keys about how Wilma interrupted peoples' lives. Webb believes the recovery process will last for at least 18 months.

"But there's a unique spirit about Key West natives and residents," Webb said. "There's very little complaining and virtually all greet the day with smiles and a resolve not to be overcome."

This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Nancy E. Johnson is a Florida-based, freelance television and print journalist.

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