Florida churches help Live Oak residents rebuild

LIVE OAK – The floodwaters of last summer's Tropical Storm Debby have long since dried up, but not without leaving many residents in serious need of property repair or reconstruction. 

In recent weeks, volunteers from groups including United Methodist churches and the nonprofit Missouri-based Hammers and Hearts organization have replaced that watery storm surge with wave after wave of volunteer assistance. 

Methodists work with other volunteers to repair damage from Tropical Storm Debby
United Methodists work with Hammers and Hearts volunteers to replace a roof on a Live Oak home damaged by Tropical Storm Debby. Photos from Burt Stephens.

At least 13 Florida United Methodist churches have stepped up to a call for help from the Suwannee Valley Long Term Recovery Group in Suwannee County.  They have come at the group’s invitation and have taken on many vital rebuilding projects, said Barbara Gill, the group's coordinator and also a member of First UMC, Live Oak.

The churches have been sending groups of volunteers to this northwestern part of Florida for the past two months.

Disaster recovery experts say it's common for first responders to show up in droves soon after a hurricane, tornado, flood or other devastating event. Typically, those are people trained to deal with immediate needs of victims, along with demolition and cleanup.

Much later, though, the need for rebuilding remains. Money from insurance coverage, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other sources may cover only materials. Volunteer labor is critical for homeowners without means to hire help, said Ben Tarpley, founder and executive director of Hammers and Hearts.

Even at this late stage, 200 homes in or around Live Oak still need work, he said. He described flooding as kind of “an invisible disaster” because a lot of damage lies hidden in walls and roofs, as opposed to houses being completely torn asunder by a tornado or hurricane. Thus, people can forget about the victims' need to rebuild, Tarpley said.

Gill said the work in Suwannee County is winding down, but she believes trained volunteers will always be needed to respond to disasters, including the recent tornado in Oklahoma. Typical needs include skilled labor, spiritual support and survivor counseling.

“I would encourage people to take the training available through United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)," she said. “If your church hasn’t done it, do it.”

United Methodists, like other organizations that come to help, partner with local long-term recovery groups. Their willingness to find and pay for their own lodging and supply their own food has helped the Methodists be especially effective, Tarpley said. 

United Methodist volunteers replace siding on flood-damaged home
United Methodist volunteers replace siding on a flood-damaged home in Live Oak, part of a disaster recovery project stemming from Tropical Storm Debby in 2012.

Jim Watson, a member of New Covenant UMC, The Villages, was on one of two teams of 20-plus members in Live Oak at the end of April. The work team he was on put a metal roof on a double-wide trailer and tore out, patched and resealed the roof of another home. The group also painted a home that had been flooded and did some electrical work.

Watson said meeting the homeowners meant a lot to volunteers.

“They didn’t have insurance, and the FEMA money only covered materials…[Hammers and Hearts] had been there to look at the site and determined it could be done,” he said.  

The group took its own food donated by some of their home churches. The team paid for lodging at a nearby retreat center owned by the Episcopal Diocese. They worked hard every day until they dropped into bed by 9 p.m., Watson said. He estimated out-of-pocket costs at about $2,000, including the value of donated food.

Gill said some Live Oak residents still need help, but projects likely will be completed by the fall.

Watson said United Methodists understand that this is a long-term situation.
“After a disaster, everybody wants to go, but as time goes by, there’s less help," he said. "The Methodists will be the last to leave, and we’ll be there when many have given up hope and think nobody’s ever going to help them.” 

Burt Stephens of First UMC, Ocala, was on a team that worked on three houses. One had a flooded exterior and another needed electrical work, new flooring, baseboards and wallboards.  He said he and his team members are veteran disaster relief volunteers, including a stint of service two years ago after tornadoes devastated Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“Ever since Katrina, we’ve sent people to go where we’re needed,” Stephens said. The team has a trailer outfitted with various tools, and some members have deliberately built up needed skills, such as carpentry.

“Others, like myself, are there to take orders,” Stephens said.  “Sometimes, we get an opportunity to talk with the people who have been impacted. …The resiliency of these people amazes me.”

Besides New Covenant and First UMC, Ocala, Florida Conference churches that have participated or signed up to help in Live Oak include the First United Methodist churches of Kissimmee, Plant City, Lutz and Winter Garden; St. Paul's UMC, Tallahassee; Homestead UMC; Edgewater UMC, Port Charlotte; Archer UMC; Community UMC, Fruitland Park; Sun City Center UMC; and St. Andrew's UMC, Brandon.

To see a video of United Methodist volunteers in action in Live Oak, click here. For information about volunteering, click here.

-- Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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