One year in: Hurricane Irma recovery needs volunteers



Editor’s note: For more photos and updates on Hurricane Irma recovery, visit Florida Restores’ Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram. Click here to volunteer.
 
Volunteer Richard Wilson works on restoring a bathroom in a Key West home.

It has been more than a year since Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida Keys and crashed into Naples and Everglades City like a freight train at full throttle.

Two more major hurricanes—Michael and Florence—have pounded the U.S. east coast since, and hundreds of volunteers are following those recent paths of destruction to help with rebuilding and repair.

For Floridians still struggling to come back from Irma, that’s challenging news.

The frightful damage wrought by Michael and Florence has led to a shortage of volunteers and contractors to continue restoration in Irma’s hardest-hit areas. That has efforts on a slow course to recovery, according to those working with the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church and its Florida Restores program.

Conference staff estimate it could take five years before both the Keys and the greater Naples area will fully be restored. So far, only about 15 percent of the rebuilds in the Keys are complete.

“We have been working from Marathon south for most of our cases,” said Rebecca White, lead disaster case manager for Monroe County.

The pace is excruciatingly slow. Money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, as well as homeowner’s insurance and grant money is coming in at a trickle.

As White put it, you must have a permit to sneeze in the Keys. Building codes and rules are restrictive, and there are few contractors to do the work.

Keys officials have drilled it home to residents not to use unlicensed contractors, but few licensed contractors have traveled down the island chain to help because of lack of housing.

To help alleviate the volunteer housing crunch, the Florida Conference renovated the Big Pine UMC parsonage and created a bunk house that can house 20 persons, according to White.

Long term recovery is building additional temporary units for volunteers. Some people have stayed in a bunk house owned by the Episcopal Church in Marathon; some groups paid for hotels.
 
From left: Disaster Recovery Chaplain Amy Green, Gloria Houlihan and daughter Gloria Houlihan discuss house repairs and challenges.
John Hosey, a construction coordinator for Florida Restores, said many homes still have significant damage. Almost all belong to low-income residents.

“You go through an application process, and we have case managers in administration helping move it along,” he said.

“It’s a thoroughly rigorous process of making sure your home is owned. Most people either had some insurance, but not enough or have a high deductible.”

There were a lot of trees on roofs, and some have yet to be removed. The majority of the work being done inside homes is replacing floors and ripping out moldy sheet rock. Volunteers are also putting in new baseboards and replacing windows.

There are some uplifting stories to tell, like the people in the Keys and in Central Florida who have been able to move back into their homes.

“There was this particular lady in the small town of Frostproof. Her home was flooded, and she had significant damage,” Hosey said. “About the same time, her husband succumbed to a heart attack. She was pretty down and depressed. She had kind of given up.”

Volunteer groups came in and repaired her house. The last time they were there, they got a lot of painting and cleaning done and put the place back together. It was a major step toward regaining a sense of normalcy.

“So many people have been living a lot of time thinking they are never going to get their house back in order,” Hosey said.

So far, more than 130 volunteer teams have donated over 64,000 hours.

However, the number of volunteers dropped off significantly after attention shifted to areas in the Carolinas hit by Florence, then to the Panhandle, devastated this summer by Michael.
 
Volunteers talk over the plan to restore a home in Key West.
“Where we are now is, we’ve hit a good rhythm and have some great processes and staff,” said Pam Garrison, disaster response coordinator for the conference. “We are helping people to have a mission experience. They truly are having a ministry experience.”

But the amount of help needed outweighs the number of people who are available.

“The biggest challenge right now is we (Irma) are no longer in the news,” Garrison said. “Now it’s Michael. That is the nature of the beast.

“We are trying to keep it in front of folks, the need for volunteers. If recovery is happening in your area, offer hospitality, invite people to a church supper. Just being the church and having relationships with people is what this is all about.

“We still do have teams coming in, don’t get me wrong,” Garrison said. “We are trying to follow back up with teams that have already been here, but they are moving on. So, we are trying to focus now on in-state teams, which we have not had a lot.”

If you drive to Everglades City or the Keys, the scope of the disaster is not apparent, but it’s there.

“It is kind of an invisible disaster. We are being very intentional trying to reach out to our local churches to say we really need you to get involved,” Garrison said.

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

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