Reaching out to the Magnolia State

Local volunteers make plans to aid one Mississippi county. It's now under 7 feet of water.

Published September 10, 2005

INVERNESS - The Hancock County Chamber of Commerce Web site still shows pictures of boats sailing over calm blue waters, of the communities' charming architecture and of a thriving, vibrant marine life.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Hancock County, Miss., was a place where people went to the Old Town Market at Serenity Place on Main Street to buy pottery, oils and paintings. Bull riding and barrel racing where not uncommon. The chamber's Web site still lists those events on its calendar, along with the eighth annual business and industry expo that had been scheduled for later this month. "An event you won't want to miss," the Web site screams.

After Katrina, the county's future looks bleak, Citrus sheriff's Capt. Joe Eckstein told a group of Citrus County activists, politicians, business and religious leaders on Friday. The group had gathered at Sonny's in Inverness to discuss giving aid to a county in a devastated area of the Gulf Coast. "Hancock was the way Citrus was 40 years ago," someone in the crowd said.

Except now much of Hancock County, population 43,000 before the storm, is under 7 feet of water. "Every part south of Interstate 10 is totally destroyed, gone," Eckstein said. "You have a lot of death but many who have evacuated the area."

Since Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast almost two weeks ago, Citrus residents, like many people across the country, have rushed to offer relief to the victims of the storm. From schools to local churches, fundraising efforts have sprouted everywhere. But many ferrying supplies and other donations to the Gulf Coast have run into trouble. They are either told to turn away or, if they reach their intended destinations, they discover there is no way to adequately distribute supplies.

Capt. Eckstein, whose colleagues at the Sheriff's Office have been deployed to the Gulf Coast, used Friday's meeting as a forum to sound a warning to individuals in Citrus who are considering trucking supplies without any contacts in the region.

"Their product may end up being a waste," he said.

Instead, Eckstein and other leaders are urging people to take part in a monthlong campaign to collect relief supplies here. The items would be stored at a safe location in Citrus before being trucked up to Hancock County.

The group chose Hancock because local authorities deployed to that area have become familiar with the lay of the land and could help distribute the donations in an orderly way. Eckstein and others at Friday's meeting agreed that contributing to the long-term rebuilding efforts is likely a more efficient use of resources.

"We all want to rush in and help. But guess what?" Eckstein said. "That group that rushes in first is part of the disaster: They become victims. ... It shouldn't be that way."

Beginning Thursday, volunteers through the Citrus County Nature Coast Volunteer Center will accept donations outside Wal-Mart in Inverness, where a parked trailer will be open Thursday through Sunday for an entire month between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Volunteers at the site will accept donations ranging from clothing for men and women to baby food. (See complete list of items that will be accepted).

In the meantime, Citrus families are opening their homes to those displaced by the disaster. A local businessman has promised to assist a family with rent for one year. And a doctor is offering a family a condo, car, food, furniture and financial support for one year. So far, the schools have enrolled 15 students whose families are staying with friends and relatives in Citrus.

Eckstein said people who wish to be part of the immediate relief effort should contact the Sheriff's Office.

He offered a stark note of caution to those who wish to volunteer for a seven-day mission. "There are no motels," Eckstein said. "You're sleeping in cars. You're sleeping in tents. It's not going to be a pleasant place."

To volunteer for the local Hancock County relief efforts, call the local Nature Coast Volunteer Center 527-5427 or e-mail at ncvc@bocc.citrus.fl.us

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.


Bug repellent

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Men's and women's underwear

Baby formula and food

Diapers and other baby items

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Paper towels






Waterless hand sanitizer

Body wipes