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'Hands and feet of Jesus' tackle Irma damage

'Hands and feet of Jesus' tackle Irma damage

Disaster Recovery
The FUMC Jupiter-Tequesta mission team: front row, left to right: Kelly Betz, youth leader; Pastor Susan Gray; Stephanie Lovell; front center: Cheryl Cyr; Liz Creighton; back row: Cory Beerman; Jon Charles (right) and Neil Hallett (far right). Roof: JaneAnn Kauffman, left, and Jennifer Campbell.

Seven months after Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys last September, the Rev. Terri Hill, pastor at Key West United Methodist Church, reflected on how the world embraced her small community.

“The volunteers who have come to help us have been absolutely fantastic,” Hill said. “It's continuing on a regular basis. We still need them very much.”

They're doing what they can, little by little, to help repair and reconstruct damaged homes and lives. Post Irma, 16 churches have sent 197 volunteers to work on 18 mission trips in the Keys.

Volunteers seal a new roof that replaced the one destroyed by the storm.

Irma was notable for several reasons.

There had not been a major hurricane in Florida since Wilma, which flooded the Keys in 2005. There was a mandatory evacuation in the Keys before the storm. Those whose homes were damaged or destroyed moved in with friends or moved away.

Displaced or not, some who were just plain scared by the punishing winds moved away, as well.

Irma was the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, and it marked the first time Foley's neighbors—26-year Marathon resident Larry Murray and his wife, Margo—left their home because of a storm, although he said leaving the Keys never entered his mind.

“Where else would I go?” he said.

Upon his return, Murray said, he saw a neighbor's powerboat in his driveway. Two feet of water was inside his home, his screened lanai was gone and the lanai roof was in the front yard.

Mission teams have been working since January on Murray's home. He is thankful for the help because he doesn't know how they could otherwise afford the repairs.

Irma water infiltration devastated many homes, ruining their interiors. Some homes had to be demolished. Many people moved into trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rev. Susan Gray is senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Jupiter-Tequesta. Her church got involved when Irma struck.

The Keys are like a backyard for many members at Jupiter UMC. Some go down for vacations or have homes there, so they anguished for the Keys while unsure if Irma would affect them directly in northern Palm Beach County.

Knowing they had friends and colleagues in the Keys who were suffering, church members sent relief supplies immediately and began planning a four-day May journey, the church's first all-adult mission trip in many years.

“This is only the beginning for our church, which is exciting,” member Kelly Betz said, adding that she heard Gray say that the mission team consisted only of people who had been church members for fewer than two years.

First United Methodist Church Jupiter-Tequesta member Stephanie Lovell and Pastor Susan Gray paint.

Gray said during the trip she quickly saw the great need that remains in the Keys, and that storm survivors are encouraged by the presence of volunteers. No matter how much or how little they wield a hammer, volunteers give storm survivors a spiritual boost.

Watching how her friends at church were focused on mission work inspired Stephanie Lovell, one of the relatively new church members, to join the team.

“I saw what they were doing, being the hands and feet of Jesus, and I just wanted to jump in and do what I could do,” Lovell said.

She had little construction experience, but she “knew that I wanted to be a part of what's going on down here.”

Lovell joined the Florida Keys mission team as a leader for a May trip to the Keys, along with her husband, father and sister-in-law. Thirteen team members worked at Big Pine UMC and at three residences in Marathon.

The team helped clean up and repair structures, but also focused on providing respite for weary homeowners who had spent the past seven months trying to fix damage and rebuild their homes.

“And they are exhausted. They're tired, and they just need a re-boost of energy,” Lovell said, adding that many have just gotten used to “the disaster that they are (living) in.”

Criteria for qualifying for help from the Conference focuses on the least and the last. Clients typically don't have homeowner's insurance and don't qualify for assistance from FEMA.

Lovell said people with formidable contracting skills are coming in, while others are preparing meals for the construction workers or doing smaller jobs like painting and drywall work.

Each team works from three to seven days on repairs, with a construction coordinator maintaining detailed notes and keeping track daily of goals and accomplishments. Lovell praised Jim Coffey, Conference construction coordinator in Monroe County.

Betz says mission trips are personally fulfilling because they help storm survivors return to normalcy. One beneficiary has been an 84-year-old woman whose home was still uninhabitable in May.

“It's the simple things that you take for granted, the roof, the plumbing,” Betz said. “Just to replace that gives them a sense of security. I find myself thanking the homeowner.”

Volunteers and mission team members have been working to restore Big Pine UMC since Irma dropped more than 40 inches of rain into the sanctuary.

Meanwhile church officials are converting the parsonage next door in Big Pine Key–28 miles northeast of Key West–into a bunkhouse for use by mission teams.

Conference construction coordinator Jim Coffey instructs team members Jon Charles and Neil Hallett.

The conversion is possible because pastors John Hill of Big Pine UMC and Terri Hill of Key West UMC are married and live in the parsonage in Key West.  

Betz's husband Blane visited Key West during his childhood, so he welcomed the opportunity to help with renovations after Irma, during the Jupiter UMC mission trip.

“I love giving back to the community,” Betz said as he and two other men worked in a Sunday school classroom. “I loved it down here growing up. To be able to come down here and restore this building—or houses—is a fun thing to be able to do.”

Team member Rich Kauffman says he was there to do whatever he could to help, from applying “mud” to wallboard that a previous team had installed in a Marathon home to cleaning up a yard. Another member was working in a bathroom that required difficult plumbing repairs.

Jupiter UMC mission team member Neil Wheelhouse began doing handyman and construction work as a boy and does volunteer construction work now in New York during the summer.

“It's hard to believe that amount of devastation that's still around,” Wheelhouse said. “I think a lot of it is the finances. People don't have the means; they're dealing with their insurance carrier or FEMA. It's a step-by-step process that takes more time than you realize.”

Being able to help people, Wheelhouse said, is a reward for both the team member and the homeowner.

But the biggest payoff? He said it is seeing a smile on the homeowner's face.

—Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

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