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Credit Union Times Correspondent-at-Large Eileen Courter lives in Sun City Center, Fla., which is located between Tampa and Sarasota. She and her husband are members of the Sun City Center Community Response Team and were part of several CERT Teams called in to travel to nearby Hardee County to assist residents there affected by Hurricane Charley. This is her first-hand account of what she witnessed. WAUCHULA, Fla. – Reporters and officials trying to describe the havoc left behind by Hurricane Charley have used phrases such as “a war zone” and “utter devastation,” They’re right. As a reservist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 15 years, I saw a wide range of disasters. The list includes Hurricane Hugo, which clobbered Puerto Rico and the Carolinas, and Hurricane Andrew, which laid waste to wide areas of Florida from Miami south to Homestead. It’s always hard to comprehend. No matter how many photos or how much television coverage they’ve viewed, people are always stunned when they see it for themselves firsthand. Much of the national coverage of Hurricane Charley has focused on Charlotte Harbor and nearby coastal areas which are still struggling to realize what happened, much less recover from the blow. But to most Floridians the surprise Charley carried hidden up his mighty sleeve was the ability to carry havoc inland. A case in point is Hardee County, little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Tampa. It’s a small rural county, depending largely on agriculture to support a population that includes a large number of Hispanic farm workers. My husband and I are both members of the Sun City Center Community Response Team, part of a nationwide network of CERT volunteers trained to help themselves and their neighbors during disasters. When Charley decided not to head up Tampa Bay as originally forecast, our community was spared. But within hours we received a call asking for CERT teams to travel to Hardee County. We arrived there shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday and attended a briefing by county emergency management officials. We quickly learned why our original notification to stay three days had changed. No electricity anywhere in the county. No water pressure anywhere in the county. A shortage of food and housing. We were politely informed that, if we didn’t really mind returning that night to our air-conditioned homes with running showers and flush toilets, that would be great. Now mind you, our hosts said we were welcome to stay if we wanted. They could provide a cot. Somewhere. Somehow. Maybe. That would be it. Then we were assigned specific tasks. Buses would take teams to various neighborhoods and towns to go door to door passing out disaster recovery flyers. The team I was assigned to drove a few miles to a shopping center where water and ice were to be distributed. Cars lined up and snaked their way through the parking lot as we schlepped cases of bottled water and bags of ice to each car as it reached our location. The line went on hour after hour. Given the temperature of over 90 degrees baking the concrete parking lot, the choice assignment was inside the refrigerated semi-trailer loaded with ice. Later a local supermarket offered fresh produce that wouldn’t last until power was restored. The resulting loads of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers and assorted other food were quickly snapped up. When my husband returned Monday he was able to sit in on a multi-agency briefing. Issues arose that few people could anticipate and solve in advance. For example, all able-bodied residents had been sent home from the shelters. But some people still remained, mostly elderly and infirm who had no place to go and few physical or mental resources. Some had Alzheimer’s. Government officials and voluntary agencies scurried to find a solution. When we drove into Wauchula in the early morning Sunday we saw an entire shopping center parking lot serving as a staging area for utility company trucks ready to start work on restoring phones and electricity. Later that day we saw them at work along the highway. They came not only from throughout Florida but from Georgia and elsewhere. Everywhere we looked, the message was clear. If it takes a village to raise a child, it seems to take a whole state, indeed an entire nation, to recover from something like this. -

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