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Churches play vital role in Irma recovery

Churches play vital role in Irma recovery

Disaster Recovery

After Hurricane Irma leveled the Florida Keys like a 100-mph iceberg hitting the Titanic, it was all hands on deck. And all the tools those hands could operate.

If anyone could help, they did.

Fran Pedersen, an active member of Big Pine United Methodist Church, jumped in with her friends and neighbors to assist wherever it was needed. Repairing roads and structures and removing debris presented significant obstacles, so her husband offered the use of heavy equipment he owns to the effort.

Fran Pederson, Terri Dallao, Kathy Brown in Key West Florida actively in disaster recovery efforts
Fran Pederson, Terri Dallao and Kathy Brown 

But even as physical efforts to restore Big Pine Key continued, there were other issues. How would residents would recover from what they had seen and experienced in the weeks after one of the strongest Atlantic storms in history?

They found strength in relying on organizations and each other.

More than seven months into recovery, area churches and established businesses like Winn-Dixie continue to play important roles they adopted in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

The Pedersens returned home earlier than most, but they came back to devastation. When Fran went on church property for the first time after the storm, the sanctuary door was ajar, so she entered.

She saw water everywhere. It was later reported that there was 3½ feet of water in the sanctuary. Hymnals were floating in the muck. Pedersen stood in front of the alter and wept.

“It was devastating,” she said.

Digging out, then digging in

In late April, Pedersen stopped in the parking lot of Big Pine UMC to speak with Terri Dallao and Kathy Brown, her friends for about 20 years. Irma is long gone, but what she called the “far-reaching problems” caused by storm remain part of daily life.

Brown, a full-time resident of nearby No Name Key since 2003, said she and her friends moved to the Lower Keys for the small-town atmosphere. When people visit the Keys, they find a close-knit community worthy of the challenge to endure any storm. 

That spirit was never more needed than in the Irma aftermath. They helped each other return their homes close to normalcy. They held parties to celebrate just having survived the storm. 

Brown’s neighborhood consisted of 14 homes before Irma. During the storm some residents suffered small losses, but others lost their homes.

“We all worked together to help each other, and we still do,” she said. “So, it’s really a community (focused on working) within our limitations, helping one another.”

Brown cited the role of the nearby Winn-Dixie in donating free dry goods after the storm to residents who hadn’t evacuated. Pedersen was so impressed she wrote a poem entitled “I Found Grace at Winn-Dixie.” It’s hanging on the wall in store manager Kenny Lowe’s office.

Kenny Lowe a Winn-Dixie store manager standing on the storeroom floor next to a stack of paper towels
Kenny Lowe, a local Winn-Dixie store manager, helped distribute supplies and groceries to aide in hurricane recovery.

Lowe, manager for the past five years, recalled that they closed on the Thursday before the storm. It came through on Saturday night and early Sunday morning. FEMA officials showed up Sunday night and encouraged him to open as soon as possible. He opened on Monday to first responders.

With no way to keep track of sales, Lowe gave away groceries valued at about $50,000 during the first three or four days after re-opening. That included supplies to FEMA for several days, plus free water, ice, bread, peanut butter and other staples to customers after re-opening to the public.

They used decks of cards to choose 12 customers at a time who could shop for about 15 minutes. That went on for two or three days.

“I thought we played a real big role,” Lowe said.

Population debate

Some businesses have not re-opened. Some residents who lost their homes have left the area for good.

Updated numbers are not yet available, according to a Monroe County official. But anecdotal evidence seems to back up the words of county commissioner George Neugent, who predicted last October the region would depopulate by 15 to 20 percent.

Some homes are gone, making the ones that remain more expensive.

“The prices on houses and rentals are astronomical,” Dallao said, “and there are no more apartments left in Big Pine.”

Are Keys residents endangered? It’s a complex issue. While Dallao was lamenting the high cost of living, the Key West Citizen newspaper editorialized in December about the “environmental and social catastrophe” associated with “human overpopulation” in the Keys. 

In April, the stench of a “huge fire” hung over the area.

“There’s so much dead wood from Irma that has not been cleaned up,” Brown said.

Despite the lingering problems, hope hangs on and so do the residents who remain. One reason is what Dallao calls the region’s “relational support network,” including Big Pine UMC.

Churches “played an extremely big part in helping the community,” she said. “(Along) with the government, it was people helping people that made us survive.”

Dallao says after the storm, churches like Big Pine UMC supplied the community with generators and “huge” wheel barrows, among other items.

“The churches in the community here all worked to help the community,” Brown said. “Every church here did something to help the people, not their people, the people.”

In disaster zones, churches often face the twin tasks of giving aid and comfort to others while trying to dig out from under their own misfortune.

“The progress we’ve made is huge,” Pedersen said of Big Pine UMC’s recovery. The church inched closer to normalcy when community groups such as Cub Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous resumed meeting in the fellowship hall.

About a week after the storm, an anonymous church member stepped into the AA room. It had been cleaned up. Coffee was brewing. A meeting was underway. The community upheld each other,” the church member said.

“We’ll recover completely. Or close to completely, with the Grace of God and grace extended to each other.”

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

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