Irma volunteer coordinators: People are still suffering

Living alone in Enterprise, Florida, a woman endured Hurricane Irma in September with her home sustaining minimal damage. But when her grandson came by to visit, he noticed that wind blew her back porch door off its hinges.

For most people that's not a big deal. But since she is blind, the woman could have been injured exiting her house. She also could not see critters and reptiles on her patio, including the snake her grandson found on her back steps.

Hurricane Irma, which barreled through Florida during the weekend of Sept. 10, caused extensive damage, displaced many lives in various areas and generally disrupted normalcy throughout the Florida Conference, from the Florida Keys to the Apalachicola River.

Three months later, that damage is not always obvious in some areas of the state. Key West International Airport re-opened less than two weeks after the storm, but the island community still looks like a disaster zone.

Twenty miles north of Phillip Decker's office, he says, hundreds of people lost everything, including homes, trailers, campers and boats that were completely demolished.

Decker is one of the people recently hired by the Conference to serve as disaster response volunteer coordinators for five regions in the state. The positions are funded through various grants, including one from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).     

“There still are lots of people who haven't been able to move back into their homes because of the damage,” said Decker, who serves as the conference regional team coordinator in Monroe County and has been in his position since late November. There still are piles of debris lining the main and secondary roads.

Phillip Decker

During his first week on the job, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had just extended subsidies for providing nearly 550 motel rooms for displaced storm victims. “A lot of people have not been able to find new housing,” he said. Many will relocate to other parts of the state or country.

Decker has been a resident of the Keys since September. He will be coordinating conference disaster response for Monroe County, supervising construction coordinators and managing volunteer groups that come down to help rebuild the Keys. He also oversees case managers working with individual clients in need.

“It's nice to see relief on people's faces,” Decker said.

It was the several weeks he spent volunteering after Hurricane Irma that got him reconnected with The United Methodist Church for the first time since his childhood. It was an opportunity to help.

"I've developed a passion for helping people and moving people back to normalcy,” he said. “There are a lot of resources that are available. The biggest issue is that people don't know how to find and utilize them. That's a big thing for me.”

Adjust and adapt

Rev. Laura Ice

The conference is focusing its initial Irma recovery efforts on 15 counties in five regions: North Central, Tampa Bay, Central Florida, Collier County and Monroe County. Rev. Laura Ice is visiting all of them.

An ordained deacon, Ice has worked in disaster recovery for two years, receiving a full-time appointment as recovery coordinator. She supervises all volunteer coordinators, construction coordinators and case workers.

“It's a lot of moving pieces,” she said. “Every community is different. You have to adjust and adapt to how the disaster impacted that community and what the needs are.”

Based in Lakeland, Ice is less often in the office than in the field. FEMA declared 48 counties in the conference as disasters, and Ice has seen damage in at least 24 of them.   

A batch of cookies

Charlene Giovanniello, a resident of Edgewater, has served since late June as volunteer coordinator in the region that includes Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties.

Early on, Giovanniello's calendar was consumed with helping people recover from Matthew. Now the effects of Irma are front and center, including damage to manufactured homes, the roofs of single-family homes, plus interior home water damage.

It's not uncommon for people—sometimes a pastor—to call Giovanniello to let her know about a neighbor who needs help with hurricane-related home repair. Where appropriate, she turns the issue over to a case manager, whose work on behalf of the client precedes that of a construction coordinator.

After the damage is assessed, the case is sent back to Giovanniello as a funded construction project in need of volunteer construction crews. She matches the skills of volunteer teams from around the country with the local projects that are financed. Usually, the teams already have expressed interest in coming to help.

Giovanniello, a retired insurance company computer programmer from Connecticut, finds temporary housing for the volunteers and informs them of any costs they may incur. While the construction coordinator works on those technical details,

Giovanniello says she works on the “personal end of it,” including logistical details, sleeping arrangements and food. Her personal welcome gift is information about things to do in the community when they aren't working and a batch of cookies.

Volunteering is especially gratifying after others have helped you, she observed. The visually impaired woman from Enterprise who lost her back porch door was lonely and bored after Irma and thinking about a way to give back to the community. Giovanniello arranged for her to volunteer in the thrift shop at the Florida United Methodist Children's Home.

Jill Hockin

It could have been a lot worse

Jill Hockin was serving as a case manager, finishing up responsibilities regarding Hermine, when Irma struck. Now she's the volunteer coordinator for the Tampa Bay area.

When Hockin spoke with Ice about the open position, the former financial services worker and dedicated mom was looking for a flexible position in which she could make an impact on people's lives. Irma recovery assistance provides that. More than 300,000 FEMA applications were filed from the Tampa Bay area, Hockin said.

“The storm was supposed to be coming right over us, but it changed (course) a couple of hours before, so we were lucky,” Hockin said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Your calling comes alive

Officials declared Highlands County in Central Florida to be the second worst region impacted, behind the Keys. Ashley Rape, volunteer coordinator for Central Florida, is based in Sebring and was working for First United Methodist Church of Sebring as director of youth ministries when Irma came through.

Ashley Rape

The church went into “full recovery mode,” helping the community, Rape said, and the Conference hired her to work on its behalf, as well. She says her spiritual gifts will be used in the new position.

A team of about 20 students from the Charleston Wesley Foundation in South Carolina is preparing to visit Central Florida Dec. 14-21, and eight students (not affiliated with UMC) from Pennsylvania State University are coming Dec. 18-22, she reported.

“Your calling comes alive,” said Rape, whose background includes camp ministry. “It's amazing to have the opportunity to serve in that way: Our church being faithful in what we were being called to do in the moment, and God opening another door in my life to be able to continue to serve in that way as we continue the recovery efforts.”

Working on recovery day-in and day-out, Rape still sees people with water damage and other problems. “It's not as evident now, but people are still suffering,” she said.

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

Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger


Similar Stories

Related Topics

Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger!

Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin L King Jr Ave
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011