Features

More like a bombing than like a hurricane

"More like a bombing than like a hurricane" Continued...

Issue: "2004 Election: GOP's encore," Aug. 28, 2004

But it will take time to reach them all. "I am still scared," Mary Haggerty, 86, told the St. Petersburg Times on Aug 17. "No official people have come by to see if we are alive. What if one of us died? Who cares? You would think the sheriff would come by, but they haven't. I think older people are being overlooked."

One group that didn't overlook the elderly: scores of scam artists who wasted no time swooping in to victimize victims, sometimes by pushing contracting and insurance schemes. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida legislators passed laws that regulate prices on necessities such as food, water, and hotel rooms in the immediate period following a disaster. Within three days after Charley hit, the state attorney general's office had already fielded nearly 1,000 complaints concerning jacked-up prices and fake contractors or other swindles, and had filed at least four civil lawsuits.

But while some storm victims suffered from bilkers, Charley's boiling clouds also brought some silver linings. Luke Green, senior pastor at Faith Grace Ministries in Fort Myers, Fla., was out of town when Charley raged through. But someone called him with the news that the storm had broken out a church window.

When he returned to Fort Myers, "I walked up to the church building thinking we'd just have to board up the broken window, and go on and have service. But when I opened the door and walked inside … there was water four to six inches deep standing all over the floor, and the rain was still pouring down. You could stand inside the church and look straight up into the sky because the whole roof was gone."

The 100-member congregation lost everything but its P.A. system. Still, good news emerged: A nearby Seventh Day Adventist church was not only willing to let Faith Grace use its facilities but also wants to sell an older building because it plans to build a new one.

But what is old to the Adventists is new to Faith Grace. Though the building Charley destroyed was built more than 60 years ago and was in slow but steady decay, the church had no plans to move. Now it will move to the Adventist facility, "a 250 percent improvement," Mr. Green said.

Meanwhile, Ralph Gross and his family believe they have it better than some storm victims, even though Charley snatched their Port Charlotte home from around them. They're bunking in with extended family. They spend days at their church, First Presbyterian in North Port, helping victims like those in nearby Arcadia, where Charley blew orange farmers into bankruptcy and their families are boiling river water to drink.

Where will the Grosses live next?

"Don't know yet," Mr. Gross replied cheerfully. He and his wife work in Christian education in a poorer agricultural area and don't earn a lot. "But it'll be there when we're finished with people who have more need than we have. I'm very confident in my God."

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