Waveney Ann Moore: Unequal attention
As the Tampa Bay area recovers from what amounted to a relatively mild swipe from Hurricane Ian, some residents are heading south to help those reeling from the pummeling by the historic storm.
Initial reports of the devastation focused on battered watercraft and ravaged beachfront communities. Low-income neighborhoods that were also devastated by catastrophic flooding and loss seemed to receive scant attention.
“Where is the media? One would think that Ft. Myers is a city of people of no-color,” read a post on the Facebook page of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, which is located in devastated Harlem Heights in Lee County. Residents there help power the hotels and restaurants in surrounding affluent waterfront communities. But they rated little notice.
“Every time you saw the news, you saw Sanibel, Captiva, Marco Island, Naples, McGregor Boulevard. We felt deserted,” Pastor Terry Mobley of Mount Pleasant told me during a telephone call this week.
Still, news of the hardships facing the minority communities of Harlem Heights and Dunbar, which is in Fort Myers proper, has spread by word of mouth. It galvanized individuals and organizations, including congregations.
Carla Bristol of St. Pete Youth Farm, a program for high schoolers in St. Petersburg’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, got her students involved. “We pretty much spoke to our youth about helping neighborhoods that mirror ours,” she said. “Ian did not hit us. We have a responsibility to do what we can.”
The high schoolers filled bags with nonperishables, similar to the ones they prepare for those who are homeless in St. Petersburg.
“We basically took something that we already had in place,” Bristol said. “They put in Vienna sausages, mac and cheese, tuna salad, peanut butter crackers, chocolate candies, granola, fruit cups and apple sauce. We made up 70-plus brown paper bags and they all had positive messages. We packed the bags really, really full. We did 70 individual bags and six family bags.”
Organizations that volunteer at the Youth Farm also will be asked to help with the relief effort, Bristol said, adding that the young people she leads have compiled a list that includes such necessities as feminine hygiene products, shaving supplies, items for school, diapers and wipes.
The first carload of donations was dispatched to the Dunbar and Harlem Heights communities Wednesday.
Across town, Pastor Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church put out a call for a driver to take 72 child-sized cots to the hurricane-ravaged area. Oliver said he’d heard that children were sleeping on floors, and even in a parking lot, and wanted to donate the cots from his church’s recently closed preschool to the hard-hit neighborhoods. Church members Amy and Bruce Bordeaux drove the cots to Lee County in a van rented by State Rep. Michele Rayner.
Bishop Manuel Sykes explained that disregard for minority and poor communities in times of disaster led the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship to forge an agreement with the Red Cross.
Sykes, who heads the fellowship’s Florida division, said Full Gospel’s partnership with the Red Cross helps ensure that volunteers and aid reach African-American communities.
“Our task is to make sure that our people are not left out,” the pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg said.
In Harlem Heights, Miriam Ortiz, founder and executive director of Gladiolus Food Pantry, is grateful for the help that’s arriving from places like St. Petersburg, New Orleans, Texas, Wisconsin, and from right there in the Fort Myers area.
The food pantry is serving hot meals at its site, with volunteers also taking meals to people who cannot make it out of their homes, she said.
Before Ian hit, the food pantry helped 850 families a month. Now Ortiz says she can’t sleep because she worries about what will happen to residents who’ve lost their service industry jobs and small businesses.
About 60 percent of the residents in Harlem Heights and surrounding areas work on Fort Myers Beach, Captiva and Sanibel, she said.
“Now they don’t have jobs. Some of them lost their houses, lost their cars. Right now, I don’t want to ask people how they’re doing, because they just start crying. I just give them a big hug.”
She told of a young father of two whose wife is pregnant. Flood waters rose to the roof of his car and he lost all the tools for his landscaping business. He’s volunteering at Gladiolus and is determined to start over.
The pantry needs donations. “Right now, we need a lot of cleaning supplies, like Clorox, just to take the smell out. We want anything, buckets, mops,” Ortiz said.
The organization also needs a van to replace its vehicle that was ruined by the storm surge. The vehicle had been used to pick up donations from Publix, Trader Joe’s, Winn-Dixie, Fresh Market and Aldi supermarkets. The flood also wiped out the pantry’s supplies. “We had three feet of water inside, so we lost tons of food. All the vegetables and the meat,” Ortiz said.
She describes Harlem Heights, where she lives, as a working-class neighborhood with many rental homes. Two or three families sometimes share an apartment because of high rents. What breaks her heart, Ortiz said, is seeing the high number of seniors seeking help.
Mobley, the pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist, contrasted the community with its affluent neighbors.
“Harlem Heights is a neighborhood of working people and as far as Lee County goes, it’s out of place. It’s only about eight miles from Fort Myers Beach and eight miles from Sanibel. This is a working-class community of people surrounded by million-dollar homes,” he said.
About 70 percent of the residents in Harlem Heights are Hispanic, 25 percent Black, and about 5 percent white, Mobley said. Dunbar is predominantly African American, he added.
Rayner, who lives in St. Petersburg, was among those who rushed to Lee County in the aftermath of the catastrophic hurricane. A member of Mobley’s church contacted Rayner for help.
“Michele started rattling cages everywhere,” Mobley said. “She showed up Sunday with supplies and toured the neighborhood with me. I showed her the devastation on the ground and she saw that people lost everything they have. She got a firsthand account of what was going on.”
AKA’s helped to prepare hot meals, provided volunteers and made donations. Members of New Church of Faith Tampa and Pastor Jared Green also prepared meals and promised to return.
“We have been feeding about 300 people every day,” Mobley said.
Others also have offered their support. Matt Wood, a candidate for the Lee County Board of Commissioners, and his wife showed up with bottled water, canned goods, diapers and volunteers.
“Sheriff (Carmine) Marceno came and spoke with me today,” Mobley said Wednesday. “That has been comforting.”
But, he added, “My county commissioner has not been to Harlem Heights. My state representative has not been to Harlem Heights.”
Meanwhile, there’s a need for baby formula and diapers, especially for older little ones, Mobley said.
“Somebody brought seven 50-pound bags of rice and seven 50-pound bags of black beans,” he said. His church is storing them for the Gladiolus Food Bank. “We’re all working together.”
The pastor appears in awe of the generosity of the people who’ve committed to helping the modest community in which he grew up.
“The majority of the people, I have never met in my life,” he said.
The St. Pete Youth Farm will get donations to Harlem Heights and the Dunbar neighborhood. Call Carla Bristol, 727-565-3930.
Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, 7240 Concourse Drive, Harlem Heights FL 33908
Gladiolus Food Pantry, gladiolusfoodpantry.org