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Impressions of a disaster (Aug. 24, 2004)

Impressions of a disaster (Aug. 24, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Impressions of a disaster

Aug. 24, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0147}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

PUNTA GORDA — (August 20, 2004) Approaching Punta Gorda I glanced at the sign of the Shell service station. The "S" had blown away, leaving only the name "hell." I was not disposed to argue because I had just driven through the devastation of Wauchula, Arcadia, Nocatee, Fort Ogden and Cleveland.

ARCADIA — Mobile home parks here received the brunt of damage from Hurricane Charley. A number of trailers were completely destroyed, and homeowners, many of them area migrant workers, are left with little or no belongings. Photo by Michael Wacht, Photo #04-0081.

The land was scoured. What leaves remained on the trees were brown or dried. Live oaks had split or blown over. Pines had broken in two. Palms teetered toward the ground. Green citrus fruit lay scattered on the ground in the groves. In the towns roofs were obliterated, some buildings looked as if they had been struck by a wrecking ball, steeples on churches had blown off, and power lines tangled in ditches beneath fallen poles. Wauchula and Arcadia looked ragged, and poor Cleveland looked as if it had been bombed. Everywhere there was aluminum scattered around the destroyed manufactured homes, caught in trees, spread along the highway. Punta Gorda was worse than it had appeared on T.V. if only because the human eye is capable of seeing so much destruction at once, more than can be viewed through the lens of the camera. I went on to Port Charlotte and then to Pine Island, and it was more of the same.

The scope of the damage from Hurricane Charley is overwhelming. It will take many months for the communities affected to recover, and then only with the maximum assistance of governments and citizens.

The living conditions are miserable. The weather is hot and humid. There is no electrical service or telephone service. Vehicles move with frustrating slowness through many intersections, with no traffic lights or police directing traffic. One only wonders about the condition of water and sewage utilities when they are returned to service.

The people in these communities are dazed. Hardly anyone has escaped some damage to his or her properties. Thousands have lost their homes and possessions. Many are working people with little money and, now, no jobs. Others are elderly people who lost everything at an age when rebuilding is unthinkable. Hundreds are migrant workers who have been left stranded without work. It is impossible to imagine many of them being able to remain in their communities. These places will come back, but they will never be the same again.

There are stories of human behavior that make you angry, like those of a van with a phony FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] sign driven by people who deceive migrant workers by extracting $50 from them as a false guarantee of federal help or scavengers who steal others' aluminum to sell for recycling.

Mostly, the people here are coping with their losses, trying to survive and worrying about tomorrow. I stood in line at First United Methodist Church in Punta Gorda with a young couple in their 30s. The woman was pregnant. What is it like to be young, homeless, out of work, and expecting your first child? Yet, all he could say was, "thank you," over and over to those who served sandwiches and hot dogs.

There is courage here and, most of all, compassion. Neighbors are helping neighbors. Many of the United Methodist Churches have become relief centers, dispensing food and water, medicine, or building supplies to help people protect their damaged homes until they can be repaired. At Port Charlotte United Methodist Church they are calling their volunteers "Charley's Angels."

KISSIMMEE — The neighborhood around First United Methodist Church here looked very much like other parts of the state hard hit by Hurricane Charley, with telephone lines and poles wrapped up in downed trees. The church had signficant roof and water damage, with stained glass windows broken and blown into the sanctury. Photo by Dwight Oakes, Photo #04-0082.

In The United Methodist Church we need to pull together to help our neighbors in the disaster area. United Methodists in the region are performing heroic deeds in caring for one another. United Methodists in Florida are contributing money to the "Florida Storm Recovery Fund" and volunteering to help by calling 1-800-282-8011, extension 149. United Methodists across America are offering to help. We want to do whatever we can right now to assist government and relief agencies, like the Salvation Army, to help people in misery. Yet, the role of The United Methodist Church is primarily to assist with the long-term recovery for months after the initial chaos and work of relief in an emergency. With the guidance of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) we shall develop our exact role in the recovery, alongside the government and other churches and organizations.

More than anything else we are aware of the spiritual dimension of a recovery from a disaster. The heart needs as much attention as the house. There are moments when a person is so weary from the disruption of daily comforts, the strain of coping, the burden of worrying, and the drain of trying to help others that the spirit becomes overwhelmed. Yet, through the intercession and help of others the miracle of the renovation of the spirit begins. Courage, determination and perseverance return. All this is the gift of divine grace.

If this is "hell," then it is where the church ought to be because the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the one who "descended into hell" for our sakes with a love that knows no limits.


This commentary relates to Florida Conference Disaster Response.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference. He shares his impressions after visiting the Punta Gorda area Aug. 20.