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Rural Communities Fear Being Overlooked After Irma

A line of Highlands County residents waiting for a hot meal and cold bottle of water from one of 61 Salvation Army mobile feeding units operating in Florida after Hurricane Irma.
Salvation Army
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

It’s been more than a week since Hurricane Irma.

Yet many smaller communities in Florida’s rural counties are still suffering and need basic resources, according to a disaster relief expert with the Salvation Army.

“It’s frustrating; it’s terrible especially for those who are still without power. I’m not seeing it (desperation) in terms of mass chaos, that people are angry. Everybody is frustrated,” said Kevin Smith, area commander for the Salvation Army in Florida.

Smith, who has more than 20 years of experience in disaster management with the Salvation Army, said people are distressed. But just like what he witnessed in Houston while helping Hurricane Harvey victims, he said, Floridians are really stepping up and helping each other.

The Salvation Army is among the first to show up when disaster strikes with mobile “feeding units.” Smith said they have 61 food trucks currently operating in Florida and have served 477,000 meals as of Monday, both from the trucks and in shelters.

Spanning out from the Keys north to Jacksonville, their mobile units are also in more rural counties where there are logistical challenges.

On Monday, Smith said they served 5,000 meals in Highlands County and 8,000 meals in Collier County to residents still without power.

“Very rural parts of Florida are often forgotten when a tragedy like this occurs,” Smith said. “The attention goes to ground zero on the coast, but there’s a lot of suffering, damages to the crops that they rely on.”

He said residents in agricultural and less populated counties worry they're being overlooked and forgotten.

An unidentified Floridian hugs a Salvation Army worker after receiving a hot meal and water at one of the non-profit's 61 mobile feeding sites in Florida.
Credit Salvation Army
The Florida Channel
An unidentified Floridian hugs a Salvation Army worker after receiving a hot meal and water at one of the non-profit's 61 mobile feeding sites in Florida.

“They need to know that we care. I mean, I’m not giving you the speech, I’m giving you the truth. They need to know that there are people concerned about them from state, local and our non-profit organizations. We’re trying to get the resources to them and provide them an opportunity that gives them access,” Smith said.

Smith participates in daily calls with emergency managers from the local, state and federal levels. He gives them details on where meals are in demand because those are the same communities that also need more resources.

“There are many folks we're serving now that have never received services either from the Salvation Army or from the state and federal governments. So they didn't pop up on anybody's radar on how significant that need was.”

Smith said, even when power is restored, the Salvation Army will not shut down its disaster services. Instead, they will transition into providing food boxes, toiletries and help to replace items people lost in the storm.

“We don’t leave when the disaster is over,” Smith said. “The Salvation Army has been in these communities before it began, and we’re going to be with it long after as we continue down the road just like we were in Hurricane Andrew, in the hurricanes of 2004, across central Florida. We were there then and we’ll be there after this one too.”

Copyright 2017 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.