© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.
The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

DeSoto families are still suffering as a new hurricane season begins peaking

 Ruined furniture and appliances are piled outside a home
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Ruined furniture and appliances are piled outside a home in DeSoto County that was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Churches and nonprofits find some are reluctant to report problems or seek assistance.

Eleven months after Hurricane Ian tore through Southwest Florida, thousands of flood victims in DeSoto County are still living in tents or in heavily damaged homes, aid workers say.

And with the peak of the 2023 hurricane season approaching, they are asking — what will these people do when the next storm hits?

Federal and state agencies swooped in after Ian made landfall on Sept. 28, 2022, and doled out millions in aid. FEMA grants alone in DeSoto County totaled $26.5 million.

WUSF is part of the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, which provides up-to-the minute weather and news reports during severe weather events on radio, online and on social media for 13 Florida Public Media stations. I

FEMA stopped taking aid applications in January and closed its recovery center in February. Most of the state's disaster funds have been disbursed. But the needs remain.

To fill that vacuum, the task of getting out into the community and helping the residents left behind is being taken up by local faith-based agencies and churches.

Amanda Reuter, the executive director of a new nonprofit agency, Hope DeSoto Long-Term Recovery Group, says she estimates about a third of the county's residents still need help.

"It sounds like maybe up to 30% still have unmet needs," she said, "and 30% of DeSoto County is around 3,000-plus homes that still have needs that were not met through insurance, FEMA loans ... or they were damaged beyond what could be helped."

"People are living in unsafe dwellings, paying a lot of money (in rent). They're afraid to say anything because they're afraid of being kicked out and being on the street."
Ellis Cross, pastor of North Hillsborough Baptist Church in Arcadia

Hope DeSoto has, so far, been collecting data, "collecting requests for assistance, meeting with people, partners, getting grants, applying for grants, all that stuff," she said.

Hope DeSoto recently conducted a needs assessment survey, where about 40 people met face-to-face with counselors to see what aid could be available.

Mary Thomas, a widow who lives alone in Nocotee, said the storm damaged her well water system and the steps to her trailer. She was disappointed with FEMA. "They didn't help me any. They just gave maybe a little money on food." she said.

"I didn't get any help. And I didn't have any insurance," she said. Thomas said he was hopeful after meeting with counselors. “I hope so, but I really don't know how it may go. You know, they seem encouraging, but I don't know."

Reuter says more than 100 cases have been given to case managers at Catholic Charities and The Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

A man behind a laptop talking to an elderly woman across a desk
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
A counselor from World Renew Disaster Response Services talks to a DeSoto County resident Aug. 10 as part of a needs assessment survey by the nonprofit group Hope DeSoto. The group estimates 30 percent of residents in DeSoto County still need assistance after Hurricane Ian.

A ministry expands

The North Hillsborough Baptist Church in Arcadia has helped the homeless in DeSoto County for years.

When Hurricane Ian hit, Pastor Ellis Cross says the church kicked into high gear.

"We've done this for years, but not on this level," Cross said. After the storm had passed, "The resources started pouring in."

Cross' church, which itself is still dealing with structural damage from Ian, has turned into a major aid center, with rooms full of canned goods, clothing, linens, towels and other necessities. Cross gets logistical and financial help from nearby St. Edmund's Episcopal Church.

ALSO READ: State of Emergency declared ahead of Tropical Depression Ten

Deacon Robert Vaughn of St. Edmund's says he's been working to secure grants from an international organization — Episcopal Relief and Development — to pay for additional trailers for several families. "The current grant we proposed is helping a family getting additional housing until they can rebuild" he said.

Another grant is in the works for a second trailer for a family to help replace a roof that FEMA funds did not cover. "The only affordable housing they could find was in an isolated area of the county," he said.

Meanwhile, volunteers from North Hillsborough Baptist check in on hundreds of residents each week.

Cross said the No. 1 need in DeSoto County is a decent place to live. "Housing, it has to be," he said. "Affordable housing."

Cross said housing was a major issue in DeSoto before the storm. "It just got worse. It (Ian) just compounded it drastically."

According to 2021 data from the Florida Department of Health, more than 25% of residents in DeSoto County are below the poverty level, the third highest rate in the state.

People don't have the resources to survive a catastrophe, Cross said. "When a mishap or a disaster comes in, suddenly it's game over for most people."

A woman in the middle talking with two men on either side inside a home
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
From left, Deacon Robert Vaughn, Arcadia resident Nancy Saykanics and Pastor Ellis Cross talk inside Saykanics’ home near Arcadia. She is restoring two houses on the property that were flooded during Hurricane Ian in 2022.

A matter of trust

Cross says there's another big roadblock to their work: Some of the most needy are often afraid to ask for help.

"People are living in unsafe dwellings, paying a lot of money," in rent, he said. "They're afraid to say anything because they're afraid of being kicked out and being on the street."

Others fear their families will be broken up by the state.

He said a woman told him of a group of people living in camps, "literally camps in the woods ... under bridges, different places," including mothers with infants.

Cross says he can guess the general vicinity of one camp but will not try to find it. "That mother was so terrified of losing her baby and others losing their children, that they just formed this alliance of protection and will not divulge their location."

Cross said the woman told him she told him where he could leave food and other goods, "and the people in the camp would see it, would come out of the place and go get it."

"They just don't want to be seen or they don't want to be found," Cross said.

As their work continues, Cross says faith keeps him going. "I just want people to know how great our God is and how powerful he is. Literal miracles ... have happened in this resource center."

Reuter, with Hope DeSoto, says full recovery may take up to 10 years. "But we're here as a long-term recovery group for that reason.

"These survivors are tough; they have been through a lot and still have a hopeful attitude that life will find its new normal," Reuter said. "The conditions survivors are living in are unpleasant but they are making it through this together."

Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. You can reach him at jdela@cncfl.org.