Community rallies to help storm victims

OKEECHOBEE — The phone was ringing nonstop at the Fort Drum Community Church on Friday as offers of help poured in for the victims of the tornado that struck the area on Thursday morning.

“Okeechobee is so awesome,” said Judy Welch. “They want to get together and come out and help.”

She said people in Fort Drum often help each other. Some people who had damage on their own properties on Thursday were helping those whose damage was worse, she continued.

As news of the storm damage spread, she started getting calls from all over the county from people who want to help.

“This notebook is full of names and offers,” she said.

Those who want to help can call the church at 863-467-1733. The person who answers the phone (very likely to be Judy, Roxanne or Gail) will take down the name, phone number, and the offer. That list will be matched with the list of needs from those with storm damage.

Some people need help cleaning up debris. Some need help with repairs to their homes. Some people don’t have homes anymore, Mrs. Welch explained.

The church is NOT accepting donations of food or clothing.

Mrs. Welch said Big Lake Missions brought a delivery of nonperishable food on Thursday and the church has its own food pantry. K-9 Rescue brought pet food and extra pet dishes. The American Red Cross was also at the church on Thursday, to set up a storm shelter there and provide meals.

People are asked not to bring donations to the church at this time, Mrs. Welch said. The church does not have storage space.

“Call and we’ll take their names and information, and we’ll match them with people who need something,” she said.

Seventeen homes were damaged with three homes completely destroyed by the tornado that hit the Fort Drum Ranchettes area on the morning of April 6.

Fred Johnson of the National Weather Service investigated the storm areas on Friday. His preliminary report is that the Ft. Drum area was hit by a category EF-2 tornado with winds up to 115 mph, and the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park was hit by a downburst, which is straight line winds with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph.

By Friday afternoon, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office had conducted a second review of the area and found no new damage or victims. By Friday, power was restored to all homes with the exception of some storm-damaged structures. Law enforcement officers will continue to stay in the area during the clean up process to provide security and prevent looting.

American Red Cross Disaster Assessment volunteers were in Okeechobee on Friday assessing the damages and offering assistance to the storm victims.
The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Fort Drum Community Church on Thursday, but none of the storm victims spent the night there. Most wanted to stay on their own property, said Eileen Halatyn, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager. Others stayed with family or friends.

Red Cross volunteers did provide some food for storm victims at the church on Thursday, she said. Red Cross also provide housing assistance for one family who had been at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park when the storm hit. Several RVs at the park were damaged or destroyed in the park by the high winds.

Ms. Halatyn said Red Cross will offer the same assistance to those who lost homes to the tornado that they offer to other victims of disasters, such as those who lose their home in a fire. This may include help with temporary lodging, and vouchers for immediate necessities. Red Cross volunteers will also provide the storm victims with a list of other agencies that offer help.

Sarah Ruwe, Red Cross Chapter Executive, said donations to Red Cross Disaster Assistance can be sent to the Okeechobee Red Cross in the United Way House, 208 N. Parrott Avenue, Okeechobee, FL 34972, or online at She said donations are used for local services but not specific to one disaster. Those who want to help the Fort Drum tornado victims directly can do so through the Fort Drum Community Church.

According to the reports from emergency officials, no one in the Fort Drum area was seriously injured by the tornado; some people in the state park were injured when winds overturned RVs there. One woman from the park was transported to the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center Trauma Center.

Additional debris from the April 6, 2017 EF-2 tornado which hit Fort Drum in Florida.

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