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Churches, members come face to face with survivors

Churches, members come face to face with survivors

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches, members come face to face with survivors

Sept. 24, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0371}

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles on local church and district-wide Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. See related sidebar, "Fort Myers church takes help to next level," e-Review FUMNS  {0372}.

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

ORLANDO — They haven't all gone to Texas.

Survivors of Hurricane Katrina have also made their way to Florida — to Orlando and the city's First United Methodist Church.

ORLANDO — American Red Cross volunteers work with survivors of Hurricane Katrina at a Red Cross processing center set up at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #05-241.

The church has been providing space for the American Red Cross to run a processing center for families displaced by the storm. For many, that help is the first step in getting their lives back to some semblance of normalcy.

For the church and local United Methodists, it's an opportunity to meet the storm-weary survivors and be in active ministry to people in need.

The Red Cross processing center is set up at a building owned by the church that's across the street from the church's main facilities. It was an office building that's being renovated, but it has plenty of room. A Red Cross volunteer said it's perfect, with its generator and shuttered windows.

Mike Saunders, the church's administrator, said the space was used as a processing center for about two months last year, helping families deal with Florida's trio of hurricanes. He said the Red Cross has asked to continue using it this time for another 45 days or at least through the end of October.

Saunders says church ministry leaders have been looking at ways they can help the families while they're in the neighborhood and what they are learning this year will affect the kinds of relief they do next year.

"They (survivors) have come here without anything. They don't know where to go. ... They have no church. They need information for their kids," he said.

All that has made church leaders realize future efforts will need to be multi-pronged — providing space for relief efforts and collecting supplies that will be shipped to affected areas, but also having enough of those same supplies and resources available to any displaced families coming to Florida.

Saunders said they didn't anticipate needing to provide some of those things for people headed their way.

Michael Battaglia, the processing center's manager and a volunteer, said it has been standing room only at the center some days.

The center opened Sept. 5, and by Sept. 21 it had helped about 1,850 families — more than 6,000 people by Battaglia's estimate.

He said there have been some amazing stories, but also some "tough ones." He said one person hitchhiked to the center from Louisiana. Another, a grandfather, had lost contact with his entire family. He made it to the center, and as he was getting into the elevator to go to the processing center on the second floor, his daughter got off the elevator with three of his grandchildren.

"They reunited right here," Battaglia said.

One woman was "nine months and one day pregnant. We got her out of here and to a hospital," he said. "There are several families here whose children are terminally ill. Those are the tough ones."

The Red Cross has been providing money to meet immediate needs — for food, clothing, prescriptions, lodging — and information about additional community resources. Processing also includes health screenings for people concerned about having waded through polluted floodwaters or who were hurt trying to escape their devastated cities.

ORLANDO — Hurricane Katrina survivors wait to receive checks from the American Red Cross that will help them pay for food, lodging and other immediate needs. The Red Cross had been providing debit cards, but ran out of its supply. The organization has since restocked and is back to giving out the cards at its processing center at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #05-242.

Families have been getting debit cards in amounts of about $360 to $1,600, depending on the number of people in the family, according to Battaglia. Each is imprinted with the Red Cross logo and works like any other debit card.

At one point the center's supply of cards ran out and Red Cross volunteers began cutting checks instead. A special room was set aside to accommodate the large numbers of people waiting for checks.

The waiting was just a frustration for some, but excruciating for others. One woman who arrived late in the afternoon after being processed that morning broke down in tears when she was told her check wasn't ready. Battaglia said they restocked their supply of cards and are back to giving those out instead.

Those arriving at the center are asked to show some sort of proof of residency to ensure they are actually coming from an affected area. Battaglia said he accepted the birth certificate of a newborn as that proof.

To get the whole process going, survivors check in, then meet with a caseworker who determines the kind of help they'll need.

Robert Scott decided that was his job. "I call myself a sandbag," he said. "You throw me in wherever you need me."

Scott is a licensed mental health specialist who spent 22 years working for the Navy. He also attends First United Methodist Church of Oviedo and has been a member there for 24 years.

Scott knows what it's like to go through a hurricane and need help afterward. His home and property were damage during last year's storms here, and he appreciates the help he received from his neighbors.

With that experience still fresh in his mind, coupled with the images of suffering seen every night on the news, Scott felt he needed to help. "I was very angry, very upset," he said. "You don't just stand there. You have to do something."

He's using his skills as a social worker to help people with both their physical and emotional needs. "Some don't want to talk about it too much; some want to. ... A few people are shell-shocked."

Scott said one woman had what he described as a "thousand-yard stare." He had to gently prompt her to talk, but she finally did and "seemed a little better going out than coming in."

He said the emotions run the gamut. One couple from Louisiana that had been forced to spend a night on a levee with their son and dog before being rescued by an electric company truck was upbeat because they "got out."

Scott said about 60 percent of the people he's been seeing have come from Louisiana's Jefferson Parish, although he did meet a man from New Orleans who had refused to leave the city until all his guests were evacuated from the hotel where he worked as general manager. He told Scott he fended off looters for two days, until a more determined group came back and destroyed his car. Because there wasn't any water or cleaning service at the hotel, he said he moved people from one clean room to the next.

The hotel manager chose Central Florida as his destination because he has family in the area. He showed up at the Red Cross hoping volunteers would be able to give him a little pocket money and help him find his friends. He was also concerned about his health after wading through so much contaminated water so he was given a medical screening.

"He really stuck it out for his guests," Scott said. "I was really impressed by that."

Like the hotel manager securing the safety of his guests, helping at the center was something Scott felt he had to do. "I've got to give something if I'm going to believe in my faith," he said. "There's that (Good) Samaritan thing."
How churches and members can help

* Gather supplies for Florida and other affected statesFor Florida: Migrant workers in South Florida were hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. Florida City United Methodist Church/Florida City Hispanic Mission is collecting rice and beans, non-perishable foodstuffs, diapers, health kits, new men's blue jeans in small and medium sizes, new men's t-shirts (or clean t-shirts in good condition) and baby clothes. Call Diane Gutierrez at 305-247-0911 to arrange for delivery of items. Health kit items can be found at For other states: The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) no longer needs donations of bottled water, but other items are in short supply, including health kits, school kits, new sets of twin sheets, new pillows, new blankets and new air mattresses. Health and school kit items and packaging instructions may be found at Items can be sent to the Florida Conference Disaster Response Depot in Madison (call to make delivery arrangements: 850-869-0882 or 850-929-4938) or UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot, P.O. Box 850, 131 Sager Brown Road, Baldwin, LA 70514-0850 (please also provide $1.00 per kit to cover distribution costs and send it to Sager Brown UMCOR Advance #982730, "Contain Your Joy").

* Organize volunteer teams — Teams wanting to work in Florida or affected areas in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi should contact the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center (SRC) at 800-282-8011, extension 149.

* Donate — to UMCOR Advance No. 982523, "Hurricanes 2005 Global." Contributions can be made online at, at local churches or by phone at 800-554-8583. Checks should include the Advance number and name on the memo line. Checks given at local churches should be made payable to the local church. Checks mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068 should be made payable to UMCOR. Checks to support recovery in a specific region should reflect that.

Individuals looking for family members or friends who live in affected areas should call the Salvation Army at 847-709-6700 or the American Red Cross at 800-435-7669.

The SRC can be reached at 800-282-8011, extension 149.


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.