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Where there is Irma misery, there is ministry opportunity

Where there is Irma misery, there is ministry opportunity

Disaster Recovery
People displaced from Hurricane Irma continue to struggle with homelessness and dangerous conditions.

For most people, Hurricane Irma is one for the history books. For thousands of Floridians, though, it remains a current event and The United Methodist Church is in the thick of helping cope with the aftermath.

Last September, Irma became one of the biggest and costliest storms to hit Florida as it moved up the state. By then, it already had devastated the Caribbean and would move into Georgia and the Carolinas before it was done.

Disaster recovery teams have sprung into overdrive across the state, continuing to help ongoing recovery efforts. —Photo by Pam Carter

U.S. officials estimated damage was more than $60 billion, including $4.4 million to Florida Conference properties.

Insurance paid $2.1 million on 262 claims, said LaNita Battles, director of ministry protection. There were no total losses, but churches, homes, other buildings and vehicles were damaged, some substantially, by wind and floods, she said.

But even before Irma had cleared the state, Methodists began reaching out to neighbors and strangers. That work is ongoing and expected to last three to five years.

“We’re in recovery all over the state,” said Pam Garrison, director of disaster recovery. And not just for Irma, teams are still working assisting victims of hurricanes Matthew and Hermine that struck in 2016.

The Hermine recovery office in the Tampa area is closing in June, and the Matthew office in Northeast Florida should close by the end of the year, Garrison said.

Irma recovery teams are working in five regional offices around the state, staffed with case managers, construction coordinators and volunteer coordinators. The work is being funded with an $8 million grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“It’s a lot of money but when you have 45 or 50 people over two years, it’s not that much,” Garrison said. “We anticipate that this will be a three- to five-year recovery. We’ll evaluate in a year and a half and see what it will take to complete it.”

Garrison said the conference helps people who otherwise fall through the cracks.

“They are uninsured or under-insured. They don’t have the resources to recover, or they don’t know how to access available resources. It’s very holistic and individual. They may have lost a house, a car, a job,” she said.

“Our case managers empower them to put together a recovery plan. Many times, they don’t know where to start. We are their partner in recovery. It’s their recovery, not ours. We help them figure out where they are, what recovery looks like for them and walk them through the process and help them identify and access resources.”

Often, the focus is on helping fill the gap between the money they received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and what insurance coverage they may have had.

“They may have FEMA money to buy materials, and then we find volunteers to do the work, so they don’t have to hire a contractor,” she said.

Garrison estimates they will help about 1,200 people in 480 homes. But, she says, that’s a low estimate.

The Keys were hardest hit, which is especially challenging because of the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing.

Terri Hill, pastor of Key West United Methodist Church, said the latest estimate is that 1,000 homes were destroyed and 2,500 more sustained major damage. Many businesses have not reopened, leaving hundreds of people out of work.

Some homeless residents are living in trailers on their property, while some are sharing apartments.

Others have moved to South Florida and commute, which can take three hours. Some still have not received insurance checks or are on a waiting list for contractors and other workers.

“If you have a tarp on your roof and there’s another storm heading your way, your patience is going to run thin,” Hill said.

Wherever there is misery, there is opportunity for ministry.

In addition to handing out supplies immediately after the storm, for the past seven months Key West UMC has hosted recovery team volunteers from UMCOR, Volunteers in Mission, Samaritan’s Purse, AmeriCorps and other nonprofits.

They sleep in the church’s 12 beds provided in two bunk rooms.

Volunteers also are housed at the parsonage at Big Pine United Methodist Church, where Hill’s husband is pastor. Big Pine was especially hard hit, so it is easier for the volunteers to be onsite rather than drive 45 minutes from Key West, Hill said.

But the devastation from Irma extends to the other end of the state in the North East District. District Superintendent Jay Therrell has been in temporary offices at Crossroads United Methodist Church, while the damage to the district office is repaired.

Long-term recovery teams have been in the area since Hurricane Matthew, which swept up the East coast in 2016.

“It’s been beautiful to see the teams from around the country that have come to the area,” Therrell said. “We have churches that host them, and that’s a long-term commitment.”

—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.

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