Irma recovery: homes to be dedicated in Spanish


Team member working to repair sheet rock in a damaged home.


This October 26-27 weekend, a handful of homeowners who lost almost everything during Hurricane Irma will gather with local pastors and some who have helped them rebuild.

The purpose is simple: to honor the way God has moved for them and the way the restoration of their homes has progressed.

The Florida Conference will dedicate three rebuilt homes—one in LaBelle and two in Clewiston—with two of the ceremonies conducted completely in Spanish, a first.

The recovery effort is winding down after a hectic period.

“We started doing these dedications really as soon as I came on staff in 2018,” Disaster Recovery Chaplain Amy Greene said.

“The reason we decided to do these is we know how important it is to mark the culmination of somebody’s recovery journey. We see these as a time for the homeowner, community and staff can come together to celebrate the journey they have been on,” she said

Sometimes the mold damage required ripping out the walls.

Most dedications bring tears of joy and relief.

“We borrow some from the Methodist Book of Worship,” Greene said. “I tailor them to the client’s background. Something that is really important to me is to invite a local pastor, so we know that the connection with a community of faith continues.”

Disaster Response Coordinator Pam Garrison said this would be the first time three dedications have been done all in one weekend since this Hurricane Irma rebuilding effort began in 2017.

“It is a holistic approach,” Garrison said. “From Nov. 2017 to Aug. 2019 we have repaired 249 homes and referred over 4,000 people for other services such as rental assistance, furniture or appliances, or if they need to be on food stamps.

“We help them to get that done. Any kind of social service need, we point them to, including counseling for jobs.”

Hurricane Irma devastated the lower Florida Keys, hitting especially hard in Big Pine Key and Marathon, the largest two in the island chain.

Also, in Naples and surrounding rural communities in Collier, including Glades and Hendry counties, homes were flattened in some cases and severely damaged in others. The longer a damaged home sits unrepaired, the worse the damage due to mold from the Florida heat and flooding.

Many of the outlying areas were farm families with little insurance or money to rebuild.

“We work with survivors to help them to put a recovery plan together,” Garrison said. “We look at what they need in this community to recover from this disaster. We look at resources, damages and how we can we help determine what recovery looks like. It could include home repairs and helping people find jobs. We consider how we can help give this person a hand up and empower them so next time they are in a better position when disaster happens.

“We also have construction coordinators who go out and do estimates on the homes to see what it will take to repair them. We determine if the damage was, indeed, damage caused by the storm and that they don’t have other resources.”

The staff digs through financial papers to discover who owns the home, if there is insurance and if a claim was filed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Hurricane Irma was so large it covered the entire state of Florida.

“If FEMA denies their claim, we help them appeal it,” Garrison said.

Much of the work will be completed by the end of this year, but the rest will continue until the end of 2020, when it will officially end.

“Probably our biggest challenge now is that volunteers are spread thin, and at the same time, it is hard to get contractors because construction is booming in Florida,” Garrison said. It is especially hard to get contractors to do the small jobs in more remote rural areas.

A lot of donors are weary at this point because the disasters are more frequent and more intense, she said.

The Florida disaster recovery teams contacted 14,299 households in 15 counties affected just by Irma through the FEMA list.

Many of the houses had to be rebuilt because of immediate damage or damage caused by mold.

It may seem a long time since the hurricane struck, Garrison said, but this is actually considered a short deployment for the disaster recovery teams, compared to some others.

Still, if money were available, the Methodist teams would easily work for two more years in Collier and Monroe counties, said Angela Cepeda-Martinez, the Regional Team Leader for the Collier-Southwest Region.

She moved from Puerto Rico right after Hurricane Maria to help with Florida’s devastation after Irma.

Recovery team examines ceiling isulation for the need of replacement.

“We have experienced damages from roofs blown off on both mobile homes and single-family homes. Depending upon the area, we have seen in Collier, especially in the Everglades area, the flooding caused significant damage and properties there were damaged beyond repair,” Cepeda-Martinez said.

“We have gone from re-roofing and correcting mold and mildew problems to dealing regularly with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time there is a rainstorm, our phones light up like Christmas trees. Many people are still very distressed.”

The task can be overwhelming.

“We really think in Collier and Monroe there are two more years of work,” Garrison said, “but our partners are running out of money, and funding is being diverted into other places.

“You do the best you can to help those you have identified. We can’t help everyone even though we want to.”

The recovery teams have received a Volunteer Florida grant for $1 million and a United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR grant for $1 million, then Bridge to Recovery gave $8 million for two years.

The Methodist initiative has included 40 staff and hundreds of volunteers.

“We have had close to 200 teams from all over the nation,” Garrison said. “The value of their volunteer hours is over $1.3 million. Volunteers make a huge difference.”

—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer in Valrico.


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The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

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