Hurricane Frances hits storm-weary Florida

Scores of LDS families forced from homes; Hurricane Ivan looms

Just weeks after being bullied about by Hurricane Charley, storm-weary Church members in Florida found themselves on the business end of Frances' wrath.

Hurricane Frances, a low-level but plodding tempest, churned through much of the Sunshine State Sept. 5, leaving more than a dozen dead and compounding the multi-billion dollar repair bill left by Hurricane Charley in mid-August. (See Aug. 21, 2004, Church News, page 3.) No Church members were killed or seriously injured, although the homes of more than 120 families suffered significant damage during the recent storm.

Florida's latest hurricane shut down much of the state for several days. Millions spent days without electricity or reliable phone service. Ice, bottled water, baby supplies and gasoline remained precious commodities.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Church member Mary Volski, who watched the hurricane arrive while working as a labor and delivery nurse in a Vero Beach hospital. While winds did not reach the 145-mph levels endured during Hurricane Charley, Frances did dump heavy rainfall, causing widespread flooding.

Hurricane Frances reached land early Sunday morning, Sept. 5. Hit hardest by the storm's initial blow were the Cocoa Florida Stake and the Stuart Florida Stake located on the state's central-east coast. Dozens of LDS families from those areas were forced to evacuate, finding refuge in meetinghouses with relatives or fellow ward members.

"We're primarily looking at roof damage where rain has come into homes and rendered them unlivable," said Lake Mary Florida Stake President Douglas B. Carter, who chairs the Orlando Regional Welfare Committee. Some LDS homes that were damaged weeks ago by Charley were hit again by Hurricane Frances.

Church humanitarian service was performed long before Frances reached land. Priesthood and Relief Society leaders in Florida began contacting members before the storm arrived, compiling lists of who planned to evacuate and who planned to remain home. Post-storm communication proved trickier in areas along Florida's east coast. Sans phone service, stake presidents from the Stuart and Cocoa stakes had to check on their members the hard way.

"You have to get out in a truck or car and literally travel your whole stake," President Carter said.

Thanks to a well-organized emergency response program, LDS relief teams were reporting for duty as soon as the weather allowed. By mid-week, about 100 people from the Fort Lauderdale/Miami and Orlando regions had been dispatched to help fellow Floridians victimized by Frances.

"People in Vero Beach were in tears, literally, (because) we had moved that fast," said Stuart Florida Stake President H. Wesley Odom Jr.

One of the volunteers' initial tasks was to stretch temporary roofs across homes severely damaged by the storm to prevent persistent rainfall from flooding and destroying valuables inside. Others cleared felled trees from roads and parking lots.

An LDS relief truck from the Bishop's Storehouse in Atlanta, Ga., delivered rebuilding supplies to the Stuart and Cocoa stake centers. The shipment included 20 generators, 30 chain saws, 600 tarps, 30,000 feet of rope, shovels, hammers, nails, flashlights, first aid kits and 2,000 hygiene kits. The Orlando storehouse also contributed diapers, baby food and other food commodities.

Meanwhile, four LDS men from the Tampa area traveled to Vero Beach to train Frances victims and volunteers in the basics of roof repair and storm clean up. The Vero Beach Ward meetinghouse turned into a supply clearinghouse — distributing ice, bottled water, food and other provisions to any in need.

Already, the efforts of the Church have snagged the public's attention. Several local radio and television stations have covered the LDS-led relief program in communities such as Vero Beach.

About 1,000 LDS Floridians were expected to travel to staging areas inside the Stuart and Cocoa stakes Sept. 11 to offer a day's worth of muscle, encouragement and service to hurricane victims, President Carter said. Local priesthood leaders filled out work orders identifying households damaged by the storm, along with specific repair and recovery needs. The work orders were to be matched up with teams consisting of eight to 12 people identified by their respective "handy-man" abilities.

"Within 10 to 15 minutes of arrival at the staging areas, these teams will be at their jobs," President Carter said.

The LDS workers were expected to be dressed in the Church's official "humanitarian" T-shirts recognized by police and government relief workers.

Despite the one-two punch landed by Charley and Frances, there are no feelings of "desperation and depression" among the members, said Sister Volski, who leads the Vero Beach Ward, Stuart Florida Stake, Relief Society.

"It's more like, 'What can we do to help?' "

Still, Florida members cleaning up from Frances are also keeping anxious eyes on the skies above. At press time, yet another hurricane — Ivan — was brewing in the Caribbean and could eventually find Florida.

"There are certain models showing Ivan doing what Charley did — that would be a disaster for us," President Carter said.

E-mail to: [email protected]