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Relief agencies stretched thin, Palm Beach church helps fill gap (Sept. 24, 2004)

Relief agencies stretched thin, Palm Beach church helps fill gap (Sept. 24, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Relief agencies stretched thin, Palm Beach church helps fill gap

Sept. 24, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0172}

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

n  Church reaches nearly 16,000 families.

WEST PALM BEACH — There's more to West Palm Beach than glitzy yachts and million-dollar mansions. There's the flipside to the affluent community that doesn't get much attention-public housing communities, migrant farm workers, newly arrived immigrants and the working poor.

Hurricane Frances, a Category 2 storm, hit these poor and marginalized communities hard when it ripped through the city Labor Day weekend. With relief agencies struggling to meet the needs caused by Hurricane Charley, the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches stepped in and made it its mission to reach people who had fallen through the cracks of available services.

WEST PALM BEACH — Members of United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches work on a roof in the community after Hurricane Frances, a Category 2 storm, tore through the community Labor Day weekend. Church relief teams went out to communities hard hit by the storm and dried-in houses, as shown here, where tarp is placed over a hole in the roof to prevent further damage. Volunteers also gave away ice, water and non-perishable food. Photo by Patti Aupperlee, Photo #04-0097.

Patti Aupperlee, director of the church's newcomer ministry, volunteered on a number of the church's relief teams that went out to neighboring communities, many left without electricity, water and food. Church members took items that have become precious commodities after a hurricane-ice, water and non-perishable food.

It was several days after the storm, Sept. 10 around 7:30 p.m., when Aupperlee and a team of church volunteers visited an apartment complex where they met a woman in desperate need.

When the church team arrived at the building people streamed out to get the supplies they had brought. It was the first time any organization had visited their area since the storm hit. A maintenance man approached the group and told them about Rosa, a woman on the third floor who needed help, but was unable to come downstairs. Aupperlee said what she discovered in the woman's apartment left her heartbroken.

"She is a 22-year-old single mother who gave birth to twin daughters six weeks ago," Aupperlee said. "She had no power, running water, no food and was down to her last half-gallon of water. She did have formula for the babies, but she didn't even have a flashlight. She said she had run out of food on Wednesday, and this was Friday. She said she didn't come downstairs because she heard someone say that we were selling food and she didn't have any money. The apartment was a mess, and I knew we couldn't leave her in those conditions."

Because Rosa spoke Spanish and only a little English, Aupperlee learned through a translator that Rosa's boyfriend had left her late last year, before she knew she was pregnant, to go out of state in search of migrant work. Rosa was alone-so alone that when she went into labor she had to take the bus to the hospital, nine miles away, to deliver her twin daughters.

Aupperlee knew she couldn't leave Rosa in the apartment, so team members loaded the family into the church van and took them back to the church. They arranged for Rosa and the children to first stay with a family in the church and then a hotel until the electricity and water were restored at her apartment and it could be cleaned. Rosa was able to return to her home Sept. 15, but the church is continuing to work with her to help her meet her long-term needs.

Aupperlee said it's disturbing to know so many poor people weren't able to get help from mainstream relief agencies.

"It's very sad that these are communities that are struggling anyway, and then something like this happens and they feel it even more," she said.

The Rev. Debbie McLeod, the Broward Palm Beach District's superintendent, said these communities were not forgotten, but the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency were "stretched and stressed" beyond their capabilities because they were also dealing with the effects of Hurricane Charley, which blew through the state less than one month earlier. She said the agencies didn't have the resources in place to meet the widespread need and even called on the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to help reach people they could not.

McLeod said Palm Beach County is the third most populated county in the state and has had a high number of people in need following the storms. She said the stories of many of them haven't been reflected in mainstream media reports.

"On television you see the tossed yachts and mansions with holes in them," she said. "What you don't see are the trailer parks that have been condemned because they have no electricity, water or sanitation. There are people who have lost their employment due to the storm. These are the same people who were struggling before the storm. These stories have been overlooked in the news stories. As a church, we need to address these issues where they are."

McLeod said it was particularly disturbing that the city of West Palm Beach set up a relief site 10 miles outside the city, when the majority of people who live within city limits didn't have transportation and city buses weren't running, making it difficult to get the items they desperately needed.

McLeod said the help the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches gave is "a wonderful way for the church to reach out in love," she said, adding, "these people were abandoned, desperate, scared and very grateful to receive the water, ice and food. It was an opportunity for evangelism."

The Rev. Ken Johnson, associate pastor of the church, said the church served thousands of meals and provided canned goods, toiletries and water. He said the storm affected people across racial and economical lines, but it appears the minority communities were hardest hit.

"People are really suffering, and these are people who didn't have a lot anyway," he said. "These are low-income people who have been hurt economically. It's going to take a long time for them to rebound."

The Rev. W. David McEntire, senior pastor at the church, said helping that demographic is a large part of the church's relief efforts, and about 80 percent of the people the church is helping are not church members. He said church relief workers temporarily adopted eight senior citizen housing communities, ranging from 30 to 300 residents, and provided them with hot meals until their electricity or food service provided by the city was restored.

"We didn't get to all the people who needed help, but we sure made a big dent," he said. "If you have a need, and we know about it, we will care for you."

McEntire said the church was able to reach about 16,000 families because of the commitment and dedication of the 27 full- and part-time staff members who pitched in to help. He said he knew the church could not wait for other agencies to begin their work first and would have to lead in some circumstances.

"We knew the response had to be immediate," he said. "We knew we couldn't wait. We were able to use a lot of our resources in a lot of different ways. The storm may not have been a Category 5, but we had a category-five response. We showed so many people that God's love is for real. We provided hot showers at the church, three hot meals a day and a place to come in, sit down in air-conditioning and just relax. I think the way the community sees the United Methodist Church has changed dramatically."

The church has definitely made an impact on one woman in the community, McEntire said.

"Rosa is a part of our church family now," he said. "She has learned to trust and found a different face of humanity in the United States. The focus is not on your people or my people, but our people."


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 forming a work team to assist with hurricane relief and recovery efforts should contact the Florida Storm Recovery Center at 1-800-282-8011, extension 149. The Florida Conference Storm Recovery Team can be contacted by e-mail at

Donations for relief 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 conference news and storm updates go to

This article 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.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.