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Florida Conference churches develop strategy to help Forgotten Coast communities

Florida Conference churches develop strategy to help Forgotten Coast communities

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida Conference churches develop strategy to help Forgotten Coast communities

Aug. 30, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0350}

An e-Review Feature
By Michelle Shackelford**

Pastors from six coastal-area United Methodist churches affected by Hurricane Dennis met in August to discuss how the church can begin moving forward to assist with area relief efforts.

"This is the worst disaster we've ever seen," said the Rev. Drew Standridge, pastor of Carrabelle United Methodist Church.

All of the pastors attending the meeting agreed.

"When people drive down Highway 98 and see the destruction, they mistakenly think that the shoreline was the only area affected," said the Rev. Julie Stephens, pastor of Eastpoint United Methodist Church. "They don't see the true effects, which reach far inland." 

Unlike the Red Tide disaster, which hit the area at the end of 2001 and affected one or two specialized groups, Hurricane Dennis has affected nearly all of the popular Forgotten Coast communities in the Big Bend part of the state. Dotting the shoreline from Ochlocknee Bay to Apalachicola in two counties, the communities are home to nearly 45,000 year-round residents. Six Florida Conference United Methodist churches serve the area.

According to the pastors in the group, the inland affects of the storm are enormous, with many local residents left unemployed due to extensive damage to area industries and widespread physical damage to area homes.

"We need to be actively involved and move ahead," said the Rev. Jeff Tate, pastor of Apalachicola United Methodist Church. "Right now, people are mainly coming by the church requesting assistance with rent."

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross set to exit the area by Aug. 31, the pastors unanimously agreed their six churches would be better able to assess needs after relief funds from the two agencies are depleted. 

Even FEMA has been unable to meet residents' needs in some critical areas. In Franklin County, FEMA was not able to bring in trailers to serve as temporary homes because the county lies in a flood zone. FEMA regulations prevent the use of such trailers in those zones. Additionally, each of the six churches reported instances of residents being denied aid from the agency and said many residents are wary of approaching the agency or fearful of rejection based on vague regulations.

"It is truly the Forgotten Coast," Standridge lamented. "And we need to let our area families know that we (The United Methodist Church) have not forgotten them."

With the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses distributing nearly $20,000 in the hours immediately after the storm to meet area needs, the group agreed it would be necessary to communicate with other area denominations and churches to ensure relief from the United Methodist Church is properly used.

Part of the group's strategy will be to have each United Methodist church open its doors one day a week to screen the needs of residents. They also suggested hiring a coordinator to travel to the churches to help pastors meet needs and ensure aid is properly allocated and also agreed to recruit volunteers to help with such critical tasks as accounting and counseling.

The group decided to put the plan into action in phases, as was done during the Red Tide relief. Phase one of that relief effort was used to meet immediate and urgent needs, such as providing groceries. During phase two, churches helped with rent, gas and utilities. The churches found that process helped ensure proper use of any funds received.

The Rev. Ray Hughes, pastor of St. George Island United Methodist, also suggested developing a database that could track the aid and be coordinated with other churches, ensuring funds are properly managed and not funneled to the same people through different area churches. Hughes also suggested the database be accessed through a password protected Web site, enabling the area churches to obtain data in real time that would show how much aid any given family had received, making it much easier to assess current needs.

"We, as a group of churches, really need to jump in here and provide the aid to our area after FEMA and Red Cross leave," Hughes said. "Disasters of this magnitude simply don't disappear in 60 days. The needs of these area residents are going to continue for quite some time, and it's our duty as a group to make sure that people know the church is here for them."


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Shackelford is territory manager of Northwest Florida/Southwest Georgia for Lifetouch Church Directories and serving as communications coordinator for the North West District's disaster response team.