PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. Some 1,500 Church volunteers and professionals, with more than half a million dollars in relief supplies, worked to restore normalcy in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Charley.
Charley's 145 mph winds the first Category 4 storm in nearly half a century to hit this part of Florida on Aug. 13 laid a 30-mile wide, nearly 200-mile long swath of destruction from the east coast northeast across the state. Spawning tornadoes and torrential thunderstorms in its swirling wake, the storm ripped apart mobile homes, tore off roofs, felled forests of trees and limbs and left 25 dead.
Damage continued in the windy, rainy aftermath of the storm that destroyed an estimated 10,000 homes and severely damaged another 16,000. More than three-quarters of a million were without power in the humid Florida heat for days that extended into weeks.
Typical of members' experience was that of President James R. Pratt of the Orlando Florida Stake, where 300 of his members' homes were damaged and one destroyed. As he emerged from his home in Winter Park after the storm, "I was stunned by the extent of the devastation," he said, describing the scene of once-majestic oak trees whose tops had canopied neighborhoods, but were now a twisted heap of ruin, leaving streets and driveways impassable, power and telephones out and rooftops stripped.
He finally reached a bishop in the stake whose ward had not been affected, and soon a crew of members began clearing streets and driveways and patching roofs. "While they were doing it, I began to understand what a blessing it was," President Pratt said. "Where they saw a need, they would offer help. They were such a blessing to these people; many cried, all were effusive." This stake, as did many others, met its welfare needs from within.
What happened in Winter Park on a community scale happened in central Florida on a grand scale.
Hardest hit was the Fort Meyers Florida Stake, the stake with boundaries surrounding the area where Hurricane Charley first blasted ashore. Winds and rain damaged some 325 homes in the stake, some mildly, some severely. Stake President Stephen E. Thompson described the period: "It has been frenetic."
Church members from far and wide joined the massive clean-up and repair effort. Some came in organized waves from adjoining stakes while others came from distant stakes, some in teams, some as families and some individually. Among those responding were volunteers from the Homestead stake, whose members knew storm damage firsthand, having experienced Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Missionaries from the Florida Tampa Mission pitched in and helped the Red Cross as well and were at a station visited by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who complimented them.
The first recipient of Church service was the Port Charlotte Ward meetinghouse, with grounds choked with oak trees that curiously fell in all directions away from the building, said President Thompson. But workers and heavy equipment from the Church farm in Ruskin removed the jumble of trees and gave access to the building.
The meetinghouse became the emergency response headquarters as Church trucks from Atlanta, Ga., and bishops storehouses in Orlando and Plant City in Florida, soon arrived and volunteers from outlying areas of the stake and from the Brandon Florida Stake loaded its cultural hall with relief supplies.
Such was the volunteer response that teams of 10 men, women and teens were given work orders to damaged homes, along with the chain saws, shovels, ladders and wheelbarrows to repair, or "dry-in" them. In addition to taking care of the members, these teams were also directed to repair homes of medical personnel, firefighters, police and others so they wouldn't be distracted from their critical emergency work.
"When you start working on someone's house, the neighbors see a swarm of people and work their way over and ask, 'Can you please help us?' " said President Thompson. "So every team doing one work order ended up probably doing two or three more houses. That is why you could only give a team between two to four work orders a day."
One such neighbor was Paul Susko in Port Charlotte, a retired telephone worker. "I had already worked on cleaning up for a week and barely made a dent in it," he said. "Then these 15 guys appeared. They are very, very hard workers and did a fantastic job. They took care of my neighbor as well. I've never seen a church do anything like this before."
President Thompson said that with the help of the Brandon and many other stake volunteers "all member needs were handled within 48 hours."
Elder Boyd Stewart and his wife, Sister Kathy Stewart of Lehi, Utah, arrived the day after the storm and were assigned to coordinate workers at the meetinghouse.
"It has been amazing" to see the volunteers, Elder Stewart said, some of whom came from as far away as New York. A great deal of work remains, and lack of employment for many poses serious challenges, he said.
Workers found serious challenges in Pine Island, a long, narrow strip of coastal land that took the full force of the ocean-bred hurricane. Volunteers there encountered severe devastation, which they helped clean up. They also encountered about a thousand migrant workers in various shelters with few resources, many separated from family. The Church helped them become reunited with their families and organized a special relief truck that brought their culturally preferred beans, rice and tortillas. Volunteers also helped the local Red Cross, headquartered at a local Catholic church.
Bishop Robert W. Clover Jr. of the Port Charlotte Ward was among those whose home was severely damaged. He was without communication for a while, and then, with minimal attention to his own home, directed the volunteers' efforts to help members and the community.
He said his members were talking about how no one was injured by the forceful, dangerous winds. "We were very blessed," he said, explaining that if the hurricane had been a few miles south, it would have raised, instead of lowered, the water of the harbor and Peace River and the town would have been flooded as well.
He said the ward had a "fantastic sacrament meeting on Sunday" that included a very spiritual message by Elder W. Blake Sonne, Area Authority Seventy. Speaking later were LDS Family Services workers giving post-trauma advice and an LDS insurance adjustor, advising on damage claims. The stake took over the Primary, said Bishop Clover. The Primary met in the Relief Society room because the Primary room was filled with rakes and shovels.
Relief Society president Holly Anderson organized the contacting of each member to find out what was needed while the bishop was out of communication.
The hurricane's damage path coursed from Port Charlotte northeast through the cities of Wauchula, Arcadia, Lake Wales, Kissimmee, Orlando and Daytona Beach, said President Douglas B. Carter of the Lake Mary Florida Stake, Orlando Region Welfare chairman.
In the Lake Mary stake, five of seven units were affected, with about 175 homes damaged. In the Deland stake, 25 homes were damaged in five of six units. In Orlando South, two families lost homes and businesses, and 33 others were displaced. In Kissimmee, some 400 homes were damaged and the Kissimmee meetinghouse lost part of its roof.
One of the families that lost home and business was Bishop Kaleti Fuimaono of the Kissimmee Ward.
"He was watching over his flock and organizing help where needed despite his own tragedy," said President David T. Halverson of the Orlando South stake.
Stake volunteers worked 10 days straight, and also helped neighbors, especially where single parents and elderly couples lived. Roofers from the neighboring Cocoa stake brought supplies and labor under the direction of regional and area welfare priesthood leaders. But daily thunderstorms brought heavy winds and torrential rains that continued to fell hard-hit trees and damage homes, some of them already patched. Crews continue to work from the Tampa, Lake City, St. Petersburg, Gainesville and other stakes throughout the hurricane-damaged area.
"It was a blessing to be part of the process in the Church that immediately came together and functioned without missing a beat," said President Carter. "The regional and area welfare leaders were on the phone together organizing and making a difference within hours of the storm. I felt blessed to be a participant in the process."
The service at one neighbor's home in Lake Wales, who were an elderly couple with few resources, illustrated the results of this service, said President Carter.
"After almost a three-hour clean-up by 22 brethren, the elderly couple, with tears in their eyes, expressed gratitude and thanks for a prayer answered," he said. "Before leaving, this tired group of Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood holders sang, 'Because I Have Been Given Much,' to the couple, and departed after a word of prayer."