When Hurricane Irma swept across the Florida Peninsula this past September, it caused so much destruction that it became the fifth most costly storm in history. Millions of people were affected by high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. Nearly 70 percent of the state was left without power for days.
|Steve DeDea (left), construction coordinator for the Tampa Bay region, offers bread to Zach Pohopin, construction coordinator for the Central Florida region, at a recent training session held for new hires at the Florida Conference center in Lakeland.|
Just five months later, a small but dedicated and diverse group of people now see Florida as their mission field and will spend the next six months to two years serving thousands of residents struggling to recover in the aftermath.
“Where is the light no longer shining? That’s where we will go,” said Pam Garrison, Florida Conference disaster response coordinator.
She is leading an effort funded by an initial $1 million UMCOR grant to reach as many people as possible throughout the state that need assistance after the storm.
“You find the gap and try to fill it,” she said.
Garrison and the recovery coordinator, Rev. Laura Ice, just finished a whirlwind process of hiring dozens of people to act as case managers, construction coordinators and volunteer coordinators, who will lead teams into hard-hit areas from Jacksonville to the Keys. Three were hired to meet the needs of those affected in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.
The men and women are a diverse group of mostly local Floridians who feel called to this mission field. They are people of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities, Ice said.
The hiring process “has been very exciting,” Ice said. “I’m amazed at the individuals who answered the call. We have a wide variety of backgrounds—lawyers, ministers, nurses, an HR professional. We even hired an IT person from IBM.”
About 50 people in total have been hired for this recovery effort, Garrison said. They come from all denominations, speak many languages and range in age from 24 to 60.
One woman hired, Amy Greene, who is a member of the Portico campus at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, will serve as the chaplain for the entire recovery team. Her main focus will be to keep those in the field uplifted as they face the tough work in what is likely to be a three- to five-year recovery.
“Originally, I applied for a case manager position,” Greene said. “When I interviewed, I just felt a connection with the growing staff.”
During the interview, Greene, Ice and Garrison realized that since this effort was so unique by its scale, time and scope, the team would be in need of spiritual care, and the chaplain position was created.
“The recovery is about a holistic approach,” Ice said. “Helping people understand their new normal. How to help get people unstuck and move forward toward a hopeful future.”
Nearly 7 million people were evacuated from their homes as Hurricane Irma approached the state. So far, about 2 million people have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance. Unfortunately, FEMA funds do not cover everyone’s recovery.
Ice believes that statistically, about 130,000 people in Florida will be without any means to make whole their lives that Irma destroyed.
The Florida disaster recovery team is now in place for six months, and Garrison has applied to UMCOR for $8 million more to fund the operation for another two years.
“We are in this for the long haul,” Garrison said.
Now that the teams have been hired and trained, they will begin the process of reaching out to find the needs. Garrison said the team will be working with local churches to help them serve the needs created in their communities.
“This is an opportunity for churches,” Garrison said. “They’ve got to get outside the walls. We want our local churches involved.”
Garrison and Ice, who both live in central Florida, haven’t slept much since the hurricane hit. They were already working in communities hit by 2016 Hurricanes Matthew and Hermine.
“There has been a sense of urgency to get people out there,” Garrison said. “Every delay in hiring slowed the recovery effort. But, everything is in God’s control.”
Garrison has seen His hand in the entire effort and knows to trust in His timing.
“It sure has increased my prayer life,” she said. “I know I can’t do this by myself.”
Ice and Greene said they will know they are successful in the challenging effort when they see their clients satisfied and self-sufficient again.
And, to see transformed lives, Ice said.
“God has never ceased to amaze me,” she added.
The recovery team will be in the mission field helping those people who have had a hard time finding assistance elsewhere. The team will be working with dozens of other churches, government agencies and relief efforts from other conferences, Ice and Garrison said.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, will continue to provide expertise, assistance and financial resources to the effort. The Florida Conference is collecting much needed donations to help supplement this support for those affected. To donate, please click here.
--Julie Cole is a freelance writer based in Monroe, New York.
Editor’s Note: 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