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Good Samaritans Facing personal ruin, some hurricane victims s

Sunday, August 22, 2004

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- With a freezer full of food about to spoil, there was only one thing for Nestor Tsimpedes to do after Hurricane Charley made a shambles of his restaurant -- feed people for free.

When the freezer was emptied of ham, roast beef and turkey, he sent his employees to buy hot dogs.

"What was I going to do? I'm ruined," Tsimpedes said, his eyes becoming moist with tears as he recounted memories of the Greek-American kitchen where he toiled nearly every day for the past 10 years.

Tsimpedes is not alone in his generosity. Hundreds of local residents and some from across the nation have turned out to provide a vast array of free aid since Charley ravaged the area on Aug. 13.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that as of Friday 77,000 households had registered for disaster relief in Florida. The Red Cross is preparing 125,000 meals a day and says an estimated 2,200 families have been housed in shelters.

Hand-lettered signs

But it is the unofficial aid stations that have become a lifeline for many people.

Hurricane victims need travel only a few blocks on some major thoroughfares before seeing hand-lettered signs offering free water, ice, sandwiches, diapers, blankets and toiletries. Many good Samaritans just pull up at the first big intersection they see to distribute their aid.

"We are amazed by what we see here," said Bruce Bagge, a retired investment executive who loaded up a pickup truck with ice and water to take back to his neighbors.

For several days, Audrey Brooks of Fort Myers loaded up her minivan with bags of bread, peanut butter and other supplies and drove 25 miles to the damaged area. On Thursday, she brought 25 gallons of bleach so people could disinfect their homes, and it was all snapped up in about 30 minutes.

"I am just doing what I can," Brooks while her 6-year-old son Timothy napped in her car. "It's sad. It hit in along an area where people don't have a lot anyway."

'People at their human best'

The spontaneous showing of compassion by ordinary people -- and some businesses -- has helped many people get back on their feet.

"People are at their human best when people are in need," said Susan Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. "This is a big, big disaster, and we have big, big good Samaritans."

Many of the Samaritans are residents of the neighboring communities of Sarasota and Fort Myers who escaped the storm relatively unscathed. Others work for companies who have given them time off to help storm victims.

A Red Cross distribution center near one of the hardest hit areas in Punta Gorda has become a gathering spot for individual donors and volunteers. On Thursday, it resembled a bustling outdoor market of foods and goods -- with a flood of storm victims eager to accept the aid.

Eunice Wiley and her granddaughter, Rori Evans, 6, collected fresh fruit and granola bars, all the little girl feels like eating in the oppressive heat and humidity.

"It's a relief, it puts you at ease," said Wiley. "We are just thrilled with the amount of help."

Down the street, Randy and Sandra White took a break from clearing debris at the trailer park where they had kept a winter home. They welcomed the shade of a tent, a bowl of vegetable soup and a bottle of cold water.

"It sure is nice to come out and get something to eat," Sandra White said. "We didn't have any way to fix things or go buy food."

Harbor Nissan was badly damaged in the storm, but by the end of the week the dealership was offering free tire repairs for those who got flats from all the nails, broken glass and bent metal littering the street. Shop foreman Joe Jurisko said the dealership is losing thousands of dollars a day, but thought it was important to help.

"That will come around back to us," he said.

Among the more remarkable volunteers is Kc Kopaska, who was badly disfigured and lost his fingers in a car crash and fire when he was 17.

Kopaska, who travels to disasters nationwide with the California relief group Caravan of Hope, was in Punta Gorda four hours after Charley hit. The group brought a trailer of bottled water, and Kopaska said that when they began unloading it the next morning, people were lining up before the second pallet hit the ground.

"I can identify with people who have lost everything, or feel like they have," said Kopaska, now 45. "I know what it is like to rebuild a life."


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