Submitted by Max Durbin, F76454
National Vice President, International Area
The following account was told to me by Carol Luetjen and Bill Mitts, F213470. It describes their experiences before, during, and after Hurricane Charley, which struck Florida in August 2004. Their untiring efforts to help victims of the disaster in Arcadia, Florida, by using their motorhome should be an inspiration to everyone.
Never in our wildest imaginations did we ever expect to experience the life-threatening calamity brought on by a major hurricane. But we did, and we lived to tell the tale as much better human beings than we were before the disaster struck
It all started last August. We were at home at Oakwood Manor in Sarasota County, Florida, when we began to read newspaper articles and watched television news accounts about an approaching hurricane named Charley. Threats of hurricanes aren’t exactly new to us, and we sort of ignored the clamor, thinking how nice it would have been had we been able to make arrangements to go to Redmond, Oregon, and be with our FMCA friends at the international convention going on there, instead of suffering the thought of enduring a major storm. The hype about what could happen got intense, and finally we put our heads together and decided that the prudent thing to do was to button up our place and head inland. About this time, on Friday, August 13, a Sarasota County sheriff’s deputy came through our subdivision and told everyone that the sheriff had ordered a total evacuation. Well, to say the least, we quickly finished packing our motorhome, a fairly good-sized Beaver, and wondered where we should go. The two major north-south highways, U.S. 41 and Interstate 75, were clogged with motorists fleeing south Florida. Since we are quite familiar with the area, we decided to head inland via little-used state and county roads.
We drove about an hour or so (approximately 55 miles) and finally reached Arcadia, a small former “cow town” well inland. We found accommodations in a campground on the outskirts, settled in, and turned on the cable weather channel. We hadn’t been there very long before the De Soto County sheriff came through the park, ordering everyone to evacuate and flee to the only shelter in the county, the Turner Civic Center. This was a brand-spanking-new facility built, it was said, to endure the worst storm that nature could provide. Everyone in the park got into vehicles and rushed to the shelter. We admit this was scary, for the wind had picked up and the rains came, but once we were inside, everyone was festive and willing to put up with the inconvenience associated with being compacted into the rather spartan auditorium.
Unfortunately, whoever designed and built the building didn’t fully understand the destructive capability of a hurricane, and in about two hours the roof began to collapse and blow off. The officials herded everyone under the removable bleachers, where we escaped falling debris. Needless to say, prayers were heard in abundance and the gaiety had turned to fear, but no one appeared to panic. The next morning we heard that the county commissioners were apologetic about our plight.
When we went outside, we saw unbelievable chaos and destruction. Arcadia is home to many migrant farm workers, and their housing was so hard hit that the term “ravaged” described it very well. Government officials and other authorities were trying their best to help people in distress and clear the streets for emergency workers and equipment.
We decided to work our way through the mountains of debris and get back to the motorhome, which was parked outside. The parking lot was spared somewhat, but we still found debris and fallen trees everywhere. Our motorhome received minimal damage. We used it to transport about 60 people to a high school shelter, which was still intact. It took several hours to help out, and we worked until it was dark. Darkness came much earlier than usual, we thought, but then again, there was no electricity to power the streetlights. We spent that night parked in a Wal-Mart lot.
The next morning we decided to go home to see if our place was damaged. Believe it or not, it hadn’t been touched by Charley. But as we drove west toward Oakwood Manor, we saw devastation: roofs torn up, fences blown over, downed trees and ruined power lines everywhere. It was frightful and we felt so sorry for the many victims.
At home we thought about our ordeal, and were grateful for being spared. It seemed that we should do something to help out in thanksgiving for our safe delivery from the ravages of the storm. We remembered all the people in Arcadia and wondered how they were getting food and shelter. We figured that we could use the convenience of the motorhome to prepare food for some of the people. When our neighbors heard that we were heading back, they collected sheets, towels, food, and blankets to donate to the victims. We would transport the donations to Arcadia and distribute them as far as they would go. Besides these items, we took along about 30 pounds of hot dogs, along with buns, salads, mustard, and relish.
When we got to Arcadia, we parked at the distribution center near where the Salvation Army and Red Cross were located and proceded to cook and distribute the food we had brought. We made three more round trips to our home to get more supplies. We provided more than 900 hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad, coleslaw, turkey pasta salad, chips, and juice, along with bottled water. Intercity Meats in Sarasota donated 40 pounds of hamburger, 36 pounds of sausages, four boneless turkey breasts, and what seemed like a ton of hot dogs. They also donated snack packs of chips, cookies, cereal, and popcorn. The Gulf Coast Pelicans, our home FMCA chapter, donated several hundred dollars to help buy the food. Others donated checks, including Dr. Lewis Hanan, N.J. Olivieri of Horizon Mortgage, Jim and Holly Hatlin, and others who were real saints. The Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers allowed us to work near them to feed the hungry, and we are grateful to them.
Now that it all is over, it still seems like a miracle. A miracle that we were saved, but also a miracle that God placed us in a position to serve the hungry and homeless due to no fault of their own, but who, at the time, really needed help. Keep in mind that we are in the latter years of our lives and, beyond making cash donations from time to time for some worthy cause or another, we had never been motivated to engage in a hands-on humanitarian activity. We are so pleased and thankful that we were eyewitnesses to the tragedy and were given the opportunity to be of service to our fellow man.
On another note, being present for a number of days and being seen distributing food, blankets, etc. to the homeless from our motorhome gained good public relations for FMCA.
Also, unbeknownst to us at the time, fellow Gulf Coast Pelicans chapter members were assisting the hurricane victims. Lou and Peggy Teegarden, F73611, of Fort Myers, brought their motorhome to their front driveway and, by operating their generator, supplied power to seven neighbors. As a result, the neighbors could keep their refrigerators running until power was restored. This was particularly critical for one of the neighbors, who needed to keep a supply of insulin cool. It is a shame that the people who criticize our fellow FMCA members for owning and keeping a motorhome at their residence didn’t see this unselfish good deed. “” Carol Luetjen and Bill Mitts
I pray that all who read this will emulate the service extended by Carol and Bill, if and when called upon. I’d also like to note that a number of other Florida-based FMCA members and their chapters donated money to help those affected by the hurricanes that struck in 2004.
“” Max Durbin, Vice President, International Area.