'Pasco Rebuilds Together' making progress

Floodwaters from the 2015 summer storms in Pasco County receded long ago, but the recovery effort continues daily, thanks to a faith-based coalition repairing and rebuilding homes with volunteer labor and donations of money and materials.

Pasco Rebuilds Together was organized last October to help meet the needs of local disaster victims. These residents suffered tremendous losses between late July and mid-August when a protracted rain event dumped some 40 inches of rain on several west Pasco communities, including Holiday, Elfers and New Port Richey. More than 40 homes were destroyed and another 300 reported damaged by the flooding.

Volunteers from Community UMC in Fruitland Park replace the flood-damaged floors of a mobile home.

This Florida disaster recovery assistance program follows a case management model established by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Training for staff and volunteers for the recovery effort began Oct. 19 at First United Methodist Church of New Port Richey, and the work began in January.

“This is kind of that forgotten disaster,  because it's one of those real small ones, that unless it affected you, you don't even realize it happened,'' said Pam Garrison, who is overseeing the project for the Florida Conference. “So that makes it more difficult for us to find the teams to do the work, and to find the resources to purchase the materials. Those are our challenges,” she said.

“We can't really put a call out (for volunteers) until we have the resources and know we can buy the materials so we can keep them busy,” Garrison said.

The group held its first fundraiser last month. Called “Raise the Roof,” it was held at the Verizon Events Center, New Port Richey, on March 12, and raised about $13,000 after expenses. “Which is not bad for a first-time out,” Garrison said. “But we're needing closer to $80,000 to be able to help everyone recover.”

Others in the Pasco Rebuilds Together coalition include Catholic Charities and the United Way of Pasco County.

Teams from UM churches well beyond Florida have also travelled to the Central Florida county to pitch in. “When we're talking to teams about coming, I've been saying, if you have any resources you can donate toward the cause to help us purchase supplies, that's great,” said Garrison. “We don't want that to be a condition of their coming. But there are many churches, especially larger ones, that have budgets and plan to come and spend money on resources anyway.”

“We could use some volunteer teams for May, June, July and August,” said Laura Ice, UMC Florida case manager for flood recovery. “As of April they started kind of dwindling. Usually in January, February, March, April it's easy to get teams because it's winter everywhere else,” Ice said.

The recovery effort is progressing well. “We've taken in 46 cases and we've closed 15 of those,” Ice said early this month. “And we're still taking in some cases. About 25 percent of the cases are gutted homes that have to be completely refurbished or repaired.” She said others have comparatively minor damage to the roof, ridge vents, walls, flooring or septic tank. The latter specialty task is contracted out.

So far, 3,800 volunteer hours have been logged by some 150 individuals, Ice said. The majority of volunteers come from out of state – many on church mission trips - and from all walks of life, she said. Many are retirees, 65 or older with time and skills to offer, or “college kids on spring break,” Ice said. Local teams of volunteers ages 30 to 50 typically assist with repairs on weekends.

Volunteers must maneuver around floors that have given out as they begin repairs.

“Our goal and our focus is not only to repair the home and help them have a safe place to live for the future, but to walk with them in the journey and be a resource for their life, to help them in a holistic way; not just with construction, but spiritually, emotionally, physically – to make sure they are set up for success,” Ice said. Hopefully, work will be completed by the end of September, she said.

Rhoda Toth is among the flood victims grateful for assistance. “It's a blessing they could do what they have done and how much they have helped other people,” said Toth, who, like her husband, is on disability. The couple has stuck it out all these months, remaining in their heavily damaged doublewide mobile home without a working air conditioner and living through extensive repair efforts that included removal of extremely moldy wallboard. She has seen neighboring homes put up for sale or abandoned. “We didn't have no where else to go,” Toth said.

Replacing the sub-floor insulation and an air conditioner to replace the one shorted out by rising water is about all that remains to be done at her 20-year-old New Port Richey home.

The quicker the better for repairing all the damaged homes, said Garrison.

“We want to get all this done as soon as we can. Who knows what the hurricane season is going to bring? It's been bad enough with all the rain we've had lately. Every time it rains like that you know you've got people with roofs leaking,” said Garrison, a Pasco County resident herself.

To learn more, visit the Pasco Rebuilds Together website at www.pascorebuildstogether.org. If you would like to bring a team or volunteer, please contact Josh Hipp, Construction Coordinator,  at (330) 473-5644 or by email at josh.hipp1@gmail.com.  Donations can be sent to the conference office to the attention of Disaster Recovery and marked for the Pasco County Recovery work.

–George R. Wilkens is a free lance writer based in Wesley Chapel.

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