They said they expected to see some damage, but what they came face to face with was devastation.
"It was a real eye-opener," said North Columbia Fire and Rescue Chief Tom McFarland, who organized a small group of Columbia County volunteers who left Thursday on a relief trip to Arcadia, a small rural Florida town hit hard by Hurricane Charley.
"We got down there and really we were prepared for damage, but we really weren't prepared for what we saw," McFarland said.
McFarland organized seven county volunteers, in coordination with the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, to load up tools such as chain saws and weed-eaters and take them to Arcadia, a town just north of Fort Myers, Fla. The town was heavily damaged by Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13. Charley has been considered the worst storm to hit western Florida in more than 100 years, with sustained winds as high as 155 mph. Still, Charley has been just one of four hurricanes to hit Florida so far this hurricane season.
The most recent hurricane, called Jeanne, made its way through Columbia County on Monday, dropping a deluge of rain. By Monday afternoon, it had caused no major problems in the county. While in Florida, though, the hurricane forced the county's group of volunteers to leave the state a day early, coming back Saturday instead of Sunday.
Now, the Rev. Roger Vest, of Harlem United Methodist Church, said there is a possibility of a second relief trip to Florida's panhandle. McFarland said he is on board for another trip.
"It just goes to show the nice thing about Americans, in times of hardship and disasters, the best comes out in Americans," McFarland said.
While on their most recent trip to Florida, McFarland said his group's bus passed a church with no roof, a motor home resting on its top, a water tower collapsed on a vehicle and a pasture of more than 100-year-old oaks toppled over with their roots in the air.
"They were laid over like pins in a bowling alley," McFarland said. "It was quite a lesson as to what the power of Mother Nature can do."
Bobby Culpepper, of Harlem, and his son, Stacy, of Raleigh, N.C., joined the group to take much-needed tarps, wood, screws and canned goods to the people of Arcadia, many of whom have been left homeless or had their homes damaged by hurricane winds or tornadoes.
"I think the thing that strikes you when you are there, all around you, every place you turn, it's overwhelming," Culpepper said. "It really gives you a sense of what people down there would be feeling. But I was impressed and surprised at their attitudes and good spirits."
The Harlem group and most other volunteers from as far as New Jersey and Texas spent days clearing land and removing trees and other debris from homes and spent nights on cots, floor pads or air mattresses, McFarland said.
The first day of work, McFarland and his group cleared land, including weed-eating and mowing for an 85-year-old retired preacher who had his 10 acres devastated by a tornado.
"We just tried to make it look like a home again," McFarland said. "We didn't do any more than anyone else could have done."
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