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Conference, churches begin all-too-familiar recovery after tornadoes

Conference, churches begin all-too-familiar recovery after tornadoes

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference, churches begin all-too-familiar recovery after tornadoes

Feb. 4, 2007    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0616}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

Hawthorne Hills mobile home park in DeLand was a mass of twisted metal and debris after being hit by a tornado spawned by a severe weather system that moved through the Central Florida area early in the morning Feb. 2. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0512.

Local churches and members of the Florida Conference storm recovery ministry have once again swung into high gear to help people recover from a major storm.

Severe thunderstorms moved across the central part of the state early in the morning Feb. 2, spawning high winds and at least one tornado that caused the deaths of 20 people and damaged thousands of homes. Lake, Volusia, Sumter and Seminole counties were declared disaster areas, and the state’s new governor, Charlie Crist, visited affected areas Feb. 3 assessing damages.

This latest tornado comes on the heels of one that hit the Central Florida area Christmas day and is the second deadliest to hit the state. A severe storm in February 1998 spawned five tornadoes that killed 42 people in Central Florida and damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

The conference’s district superintendents and disaster response coordinators began contacting churches early Feb. 2 to learn the extent of damages. Early reports indicate churches and parsonages have not been significantly affected, but there’s extensive damage to surrounding communities. Areas of DeLand in Volusia County, The Villages, a retirement community in Sumter County, and the Lady Lake area of Lake County seem hardest hit.

The Rev. Geraldine McClellan, superintendent of the North Central District, reported the death of a 20-year-old whose family attended Christ United Methodist Church in Leesburg. No other fatalities among church members have been reported.

Marilyn Swanson, project director of the storm recovery ministry, said it’s still early in the assessment phase to know the extent of damages. She said the conference storm recovery ministry will likely assign an area representative to coordinate case management in affected areas and a care team to provide spiritual and emotional support and resources to churches and pastors (see “Conference storm recovery ministry establishes care teams” at for more information about this new ministry). Swanson estimates it will take at least six months to a year for communities to recover.

Swanson said many churches have been contacting the conference storm recovery center to offer assistance. She has been advising them to wait until assessments are complete and then begin working with the storm center, which will help deploy people to areas of greatest need. Work teams are not being allowed into many areas because police are trying to prevent looting, injuries and further damage to property. Swanson said it’s possible the storm center can deploy teams in Lake County by Wednesday or Thursday.

Some churches are offering some basic assistance, from helping other groups and agencies meet people’s immediate needs to giving an encouraging word that help is on the way.

Local pastor takes to the streets

The morning after the storms hit the Rev. Ivan Corbin went to check on a member of his congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, DeLand, in the conference’s East Central District, and ended up touring affected areas with local police.

Unable to drive to areas restricted to residents and emergency workers, Corbin hiked the quarter-mile from his home in DeLand to a local mobile home park hit by the storms. He had not been able to get in touch by phone with a member of his church who lived there so decided to see for himself if she was all right.

He said going from very little damage in his neighborhood just a short distance away to what he found in the mobile home park was “kind of strange,” and unless people lived in affected areas or watched the news he wondered if they knew how bad it really is in some communities.

When he entered the park he said his first thought was: “Oh, no! Not again. How many times can an area go through this?” The area was damaged by the tornado that hit Christmas day, giving families little time to recover before this latest storm.

Residents of the Hawthorne Hills mobile home park in DeLand begin salvaging what they can of their belongings after the early morning storms and tornado that hit the area. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0513.

He said he saw people walking around in a daze and others picking up debris “just to do something.” “The amazing thing to me was that people were already busy getting things out of their homes and doing things.”

He said one man whose home had been damaged escorted him through the debris. Along the way Corbin was able to ask residents how they were doing and offer emotional support and assurances that help would be on the way — from his church, other churches and local relief agencies. “Without really trying I was providing some service to them. They needed to talk.”

Corbin said he was very concerned for the owner of the park, who had abandoned his car at a local fairground because road closures prevented him from driving any further. The park owner had walked “the miles and miles” to the park because he was so intent on getting there to check on residents. As owner the man is responsible for clearing away fallen trees and other debris. Corbin said the man seemed overwhelmed.

After visting the park Corbin rode with a watch commander from the DeLand Police Department through affected areas. Corbin is a volunteer chaplain for the police department. They delivered pizza and drinks to officers assigned to various intersections to make sure no unauthorized people entered damaged areas.

He said children who were not in school because of school closures were trying to get a better look at the damage. Power lines were down, and some power poles were still unstable. He also saw what looked like potential looters checking out the area. “The police have very little tolerance for stupidity … and people getting in the way,” he said.

Going from checkpoint to checkpoint put the damages in perspective. “It’s unlike the hurricane experience where everyone is affected,” he said. “It’s a concentrated version of the hurricane experience.”

Frank DeZoort agrees. He’s a member of Corbin’s church and lives at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the St. John’s River.

He says his part of the peninsula received little damage, but “maybe a quarter of a mile (away) as the crow flies it looks like a war zone — like it was bombed out.”

For people living on the peninsula the damage is hard to miss. Because most is at the beginning of the peninsula anyone leaving the area must drive through it. DeZoort says roofs are gone, cars are turned upside down, the front row of an apartment complex is completely leveled, but there’s no damage to the building right behind it. “It was unreal,” he said.

Utilities and cable trucks have also been a common sight, along with police at the entrance to the peninsula, their patrol car lights flashing, monitoring who goes in and out.

Like most people, DeZoort was asleep when the storm hit. He said his wife woke him up and shouted at him to get on the floor. He heard what others have also described as the sound of a freight train, and he had no idea what was wrong.

Despite going through that experience he says he feels “so lucky and blessed” and sorry for his neighbors. “It hurts me to see them. (You ask) why them and not me. You feel guilty in a way.”

Overall, Corbin said he saw people “getting beyond the shock” and his assurances that people and groups would soon be there to help seemed to relieve residents, especially the park owner. Now, he said, “the challenge is to follow up with that promise.”

Churches provide what help they can

Dave Dayton (right), disaster coordinator for First United Methodist Church, DeLand, and another member of the church begin removing debris and securing roofs to prevent further damage to homes in the Hawthorne Hills mobile home park in DeLand after being hit by a tornado earlier that morning. Photo by the Rev. Ivan Corbin. Photo #07-0514.

The Rev. Dan Jackson said his church, New Covenant United Methodist Church in the North Central District, is providing light basics at this point — food, blankets, sheets.

The church has been preparing food and taking it to nearby North Lake Presbyterian Church, which has been set up as a shelter for The Villages and Lady Lake area. They have also taken blankets and sheets purchased by the district to recreation areas in The Villages serving as distribution points, and the conference’s disaster response depot is sending health kits to New Covenant so they can be taken to community distribution points.

Until more assessments can be made and areas become accessible to work teams, it’s hard for his church and others in affected districts to know what help is needed. The East Central District’s the Rev. Owen Stricklin, pastor of First United Methodist Church, DeLand, the Rev. Wayne Wiatt, superintendent, and Marilyn Beecher, outreach coordinator, also toured affected areas Feb. 3 to gauge what level of support will be needed from churches in the district.

Jackson said most of the damage in his church’s community is several miles south of the church and it will be several days before they know what else needs to be done. He is encouraging his church’s members to go to the site of Lady Lake Church of God, which was destroyed, to offer help and encouragement.

Jackson says one of the most important things his church can do at this point “is follow through in worship … remind people God is standing with us.”

Churches wanting to help with recovery efforts are asked to look for more information on the Florida Conference Web site at and contact the storm recovery center at 800-282-8011, extension 149, or

Individuals who would like to contribute to relief efforts are encouraged to give to Florida Conference Advance #605, “Florida Tornadoes.” Checks should include “Advance #605” in the memo line and may be given at local United Methodist churches, made payable to the church, or mailed to Florida Conference Treasurer, c/o Florida Annual Conference, P.O. Box 850001, Orlando, FL 32885-0207, and made payable to Florida Conference Treasurer. 
Individuals may also send checks to United Methodist Committee on Relief, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087, with “UMCOR Advance #901670, Domestic Disaster Response – Florida Tornadoes” written on the memo line. One hundred percent of every donation will support recovery efforts.


A portion of the information for this story was provided by Associated Press reports.

This article relates to Florida Conference Storm Recovery.

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