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Florida Conference examines Hurricane Wilma damage

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A satellite image shows Hurricane Wilma's path. The storm struck Florida Oct. 24.
Oct. 24, 2005

By Tita Parham*

ORLANDO, Fla. (UMNS) - As the sun began to shine across parts of Florida hit by Hurricane Wilma, United Methodist disaster response coordinators started determining the extent of damage from the storm, the state's eighth hurricane in 15 months.

Jim Luther, with the church's Florida Annual (regional) Conference, said he was worried about churches that were close to the eye of the storm, which came ashore just south of Naples early Oct. 24 as a Category 3 hurricane, spinning off tornadoes and bringing a potential for up to 10 inches of rain.

As a disaster response coordinator for the conference's South West District, Luther is responsible for connecting with churches in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties in Southwest Florida.

He said he heard from two of his 28 churches soon after the hurricane struck - Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, which reported losing part of the roof of its sanctuary, and Christ United Methodist Church in LeHigh Acres, which had leaks around its steeple.

He was not sure when he would have more information, especially from churches and residents in areas that were forced to evacuate, such as those in the district's Marco Island area.

With widespread power outages and orders from emergency management officials to stay indoors, disaster coordinators were having trouble making contact with many churches.

Luther said power in his South Fort Myers neighborhood went out around 5:30 a.m. Trees were down, screens on porches destroyed, tiles blown off roofs. A tree fell on a neighbor's car. The streets of downtown Naples were flooded with a few feet of water, and Luther said the impact on nearby First United Methodist Church was not known.

Much the same was true in the Coral Gables area of Miami, according to Bob Ladner, disaster coordinator for the South East District.

Ladner said he could see trees down throughout his neighborhood, and he was having difficulty getting out of his house because trees were blocking his front door.

He estimated the damage will be greater than what Florida experienced after Hurricane Katrina but said things could have been a lot worse. "We were blessed by having a relatively fast hurricane. We didn't get the tornadoes we were expecting."

Before the hurricane hit, Ladner reported many people in his area were not overly concerned about the storm. He said Wilma "reminded people hurricanes hit in all ways and in all places."

Ladner and district staff would not have a realistic idea of damage to the area until early Oct. 25. He said people who evacuated the Keys would not be able to return home and provide reports until officials determine bridges in and out of the Keys are safe.

The Arcadia area of the South West District was heavily damaged by Hurricane Charley last year, but seemed to have fared better during Wilma, according to the Rev. David Harris, disaster response coordinator for the district.

"Everything that could blow away blew away last year," he said, adding there wasn't much damage.

Harris is also pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia, which served as a shelter during Wilma for about 178 people. Most of them were Hispanic residents. Over the years, the church has worked hard to reach out to the area's migrant population and made inroads last year after Hurricane Charley hit.

Harris said the church did not advertise it would be open as a shelter and that people "have just learned over the years to trust us and knew we'd be open."

Visitors stayed in the fellowship hall and in a few Sunday school classrooms. The church also served dinner the evening before the storm hit and breakfast as the storm passed by.
Because there was so little damage, Harris said most of the people would be returning to their homes.

Staff and volunteers in the conference's storm recovery center are also beginning to assess damages. The next step will be to match teams and volunteers to the needs, according to Marilyn Swanson, project director of the center.

Swanson said Christy Smith, a case manager consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's executive secretary for disaster response in the United States, would soon be arriving in the state to support relief and recovery efforts.

*Parham is director of communications for the Florida Annual Conference and editor of e-Review, the online newsletter of the conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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