Tornado relief a disaster for some

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'I don't blame the people [who needed help] and got it. I blame the officials'

The story is neither new nor novel. A hurricane, an earthquake, a flood: Relief agencies respond, public officials appear, and communities reach out. Days later people begin to learn about those victims left to fend for themselves.


This time, the situation is local. And within days of the violent tornadoes that left death, injuries and homelessness in their wake, authorities were praising the media for its responsible and informative coverage while the media congratulated authorities for their swift and well-coordinated response. Remembering the boondoggle that the Hurricane Andrew tragedy became, locals shed a tear but breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that effective emergency relief was there.

But ask the people of Possum Hollow in Winter Garden about their plight. Little more than a few wood-frame houses on an unmarked dirt road near Highway 50 and State Road 545, Possum Hollow is home to poor African-American laborers. It lies beyond the Country Garden Apartments, separated by a line of trees. The Red Cross sent in a mobile food stand there only last Thursday, three days after Possum Hollow resident Sharon Siplin had walked to the county emergency station at the apartments. Asking for food and drink for 10, she cried when told she could have something there, but could not take supplies with her. Said Siplin, "It was the most devastating experience of my life, to be denied in that way."

A neighbor calling herself Cat said she approached a law enforcement officer patrolling Country Garden on Monday to ask for assistance for Possum Hollow residents and was told, "we'll get to them when we get to them." Cat says the neglect of her friends is "discrimination, pure and simple." Red Cross workers replied that no one called. And an Orange County Community Affairs representative, reached Saturday, said the office had never before heard of Possum Hollow but managed to find temporary accommodations for its victims.

Across town, at Bay Point Apartments, a tornado ripped off roofs, imploded windows and destroyed automobiles. Relief assistance arrived Wednesday afternoon, two days after the tornado. Two residents said that, as of Saturday morning, they had yet to see any law officers providing security, though a police substation lies around the corner. One woman, who had spent sleepless nights protecting her possessions, asked that her name be withheld because she feared losing public assistance if she complained. She said helicopters flew so low over the area that "I could yell at them for help but nobody came." By Saturday morning, volunteers had boarded up windows and placed tarps on roofs under the threat of more severe weather.

Jeannie Economos, of the Florida Farmworker Association, says that the Red Cross "has a not-so-good record in minority and marginalized communities." Her organization, along with Christian Disaster Response, is conducting door-to-door needs assessment of farmworker neighborhoods in hard-hit areas, "to fill in gaps left by the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA]."

Some affected farmworkers, predominantly Latinos and African-Americans, have lost their means to a livelihood. Without the money to replace blown-out windshields, they cannot drive vehicles to the fields. Margie Pitter, a Lake Apopka worker who lives in Winter Garden, is overwhelmed not only by the damage to her home, but the impending loss of her job due to the Lake Apopka farm buyout.

More problems face those pushed to the end of the line. Often without insurance they are easy targets for scam artists and price-gougers. Ralph Armstead, of the Greater Orlando Area Legal Services, is "trying to keep them from getting beaten up again." He hopes to avoid a replay of what happened after Hurricane Andrew, when legal services lawyers had to take FEMA to court for neglecting the poor. Sharon Siplin expresses it this way: "I don't blame the people [who needed help] and got it. I blame the officials."

Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes -- Florida Farmworker Association, 886-5151; Greater Orlando Area Legal Services, 841-7777 (Orange) or 847-0053 (Osceola).

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