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AmeriCorps alleviates burden from Hurricane Irma

AmeriCorps alleviates burden from Hurricane Irma

Disaster Recovery
AmeriCorps members work outside a home in Everglades City in early March. Photos by Ed Scott

In March, a group of 10 young men and women traveled about 3,300 miles from northern California to southwest Florida–from the Heart of the Redwoods to the Sunshine State–determined to help lighten the load of Hurricane Irma survivors.

The AmeriCorps Tribal CCC (Civilian Community Corps) Program of the Hoopa Valley Tribe spent 17 days helping those still dealing with effects from the massive storm. The team worked in Everglades City, 31 miles southeast of Marco Island in Big Cypress National Preserve.

AmeriCorps members work outside a home in Everglades City.

It's an example of how partnerships can work in recovery. AmeriCorps is a Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) partner.

The AmeriCorps group was humble and straightforward about why it was here.

“We came here to help,” said Tyler Breu, 27, an AmeriCorps supervisor. “It's always nice to come and help the ones in need. It's a hard time and we're here to help. Any way we can help.”

At about the same time Breu was reflecting on his team’s mission, Carol Woods was reliving the powerful September storm. Woods lives in Naples, about five miles from Wesley United Methodist Church in Marco Island, where she has served as secretary/receptionist for two years.

“It came real close to here,” Woods said of Collier County. “Plus, there were a lot of tornadoes within Irma.”

Woods and her husband Gary live in an evacuation area but, like many residents, they stayed home during the storm. They live in an upstairs coach house.

“We felt like we would be okay,” she said. “My husband was born in Florida. He's lived through every hurricane since 1951.” 

For a while it looked like Irma would deliver only a glancing blow. But after weakening, the storm re-intensified to an extremely dangerous Category 4. It crossed the warm waters of the Straits of Florida before making landfall in the Florida Keys with sustained winds of 130 mph, according to information from the county government.

“We just could not believe how terrible this storm was,” Woods said. “It came through. Then everything was quiet. Then the back side started coming. The back side was really bad.”

Irma caused major property damage in Naples, the seat of Collier County, along with Marco Island, Everglades City and unincorporated communities such as Immokalee.

The remains of a manufactured home that was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September of last year.

At least $7.95 billion in total estimated insured losses from Irma, not including damage caused by flooding, have been reported statewide, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation. As of early February, Collier County reported nearly 70,000 of the 900,000 insurance claims recorded statewide.

Wesley UMC was spared the wrath of Irma, Woods said, aside from some roof damage. However, back at home, wind got under the Woods' car inside their garage and created such a vacuum that it tried to suck the sunroof into the car.

The Woods were without power for five days and no water for seven.

“It was miserably hot,” she said. “After a hurricane comes through, it sucks all the air out, and you cannot breathe. It was a terrible.”

When AmeriCorps team members watched news reports about Irma on television last year, they probably didn’t imagine being there to help six months later. But they saw more than enough Irma-related property damage in March to make a lasting impression.

“We've seen mold,” Breu said. “We've seen porches destroyed. We've seen homes leveled. We've seen roofs taken off. We've seen whole houses just gone.”

They also saw homes needing minor repairs.

Woods and Breu have never met. But if they did, Breu might tell her that AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs in which members commit their time to address critical community needs such as disaster preparedness and recovery, increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty and sustaining national parks.

Americorp members make repairs to hurricane-damaged walls inside the home as well.

AmeriCorps members sign up for 1,700-hour terms, completed over nine to 12 months, Breu said. It is a major commitment. A typical year of full-time work in the United States is 2,080 hours.

In addition to the experience of being away from home, members get free room and board, a living allowance and an educational award of $5,730 upon completion of their service.

They are trained in swift water rescue and basic wildland firefighting. They also receive the experience of traveling and networking.

Breu says AmeriCorps' mission is “to get things done.”

After training, AmeriCorps teams are sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to where needs exist. This team left the Hoopa reservation on Feb. 26 and drove five days to Polk County in central Florida and then to Immokalee, where they bunked for a large portion of their trip.

Hoopa AmeriCorps Tribal CCC recruits from across the United States. Breu signed up and served two terms as a Corps member, then was promoted to supervisor. He wants to build a career at AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps first-year volunteer Sadie Jones, who was on her second trip to Florida for Irma relief, enjoys the experience of helping others.

Her father set an example by helping in a community, and she tries to follow that. She said she learned how to build things beginning at about age five, but she never really knew how to do it properly.

“Coming here they showed me what tools to use, different saws, different hammers,” she said.

Meanwhile, first-year AmeriCorps volunteer Sasha Greene says she has “a passion for helping people out.”

She spoke with a few survivors of Irma that AmeriCorps helped in rural Collier County. She was impressed by the way they handled the disaster.

“They experience a tragedy like this, and they still try to keep a positive attitude,” she said.

“They're really appreciative of what we do here. That's the best part of working on disaster and helping people. It's their emotional response to it.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

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