Slowly rebuilding after Irma

Volunteers help Florida residents whose homes were damaged by the hurricane five months ago.

BY JOEY BUTLER/UMNS | February 23, 2018

Donna Allison, a resident of Big Pine Key, Fla., has to wear a mask when she leaves her trailer, due to mold growing in the abandoned home next to hers.
Credit: Gustavo Vasquez/UMNS

The Rev. Laura Ice (left), recovery coordinator for the Florida Conference, works through claim paperwork with Nirmala Narayan. Narayanís home in Sebring was the first case opened by the conferenceís case managers in Central Florida.
Credit: Deborah Coble, Florida UMC Conference

John William “Captain Bill” Miller has been through a lot in the last year.

He lost his wife in March 2017 and has been going through the complicated process of obtaining full custody of his 10-year-old great-granddaughter, Shayley.

He really didn’t need a hurricane, too. But he got one.

Miller evacuated his home in The Everglades on Sept. 8, 2017, two days before Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and wound a path of destruction throughout the state. He came home to find 57 inches of water in his house. A total loss — or so he thought. Five months later, the house is almost completely rebuilt.

The 76-year-old charter boat captain said he owes thanks to people from all over the country. “First United Methodist Church of Champaign, Illinois — God bless those people. The Mennonites, the Mormons. The volunteers have taken this home to heart and they’re not gonna leave until it’s done.”

The Rev. Laura Ice, recovery coordinator for the United Methodist Florida Conference, said Miller’s was one of six names given to her by a contact in Everglades City. Not too long after opening the case, she said, volunteers showed up and gutted the house.

“I talk to Jesus every day and I thank him for these people and ask him to bless these people each day of their life now and forever more,” Miller said.

The news crews left Florida a long time ago, and dozens of other stories since then have captured the national attention. But The United Methodist Church is still on the ground in Florida and at so many other disaster sites, working with those in need to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Niki Graham may be one of the church’s biggest cheerleaders.

“I LOVE the Methodists!” said the 69-year-old resident of Goodland, a small fishing village on the end of Marco Island that was hit hard by the storm.

“I had a huge tree down that no one could move. One day, someone knocked on my door and said, ‘United Methodist Church from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. How can we help you?’ I just fell in love with them, just the nicest guys.”

Graham said Goodland endured 15 days with no electricity and trees were down everywhere. “In all the hurricanes I’ve been through, I’d never been given a bottle of water, I’d never seen a volunteer, and the Methodists found Goodland. They helped everyone here. They saved me and kept me from breaking.”

The yard around a patio is left in rubble and the trees stripped of leaves (left) after Hurricane Irma struck Goodland, Fla. The photo on the right shows nature’s progress in rebuilding the greenery. Before photo by Kathleen Barry; after photo by Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS. Toggle bar back and forth to reveal either photo.

Occasionally, it’s the church that needs the help.

Big Pine Key was one of the areas hardest hit by Irma, and Big Pine United Methodist sustained significant flooding. The damage would have been worse had Steve and Jane Witmer, church trustees, not been on site. The couple lives nearby, so they waded through water to check on the church in the early part of the storm. They wound up riding it out in the sanctuary.

“We picked up the altar to get it out of the water,” Jane Witmer said. “Since it was Sunday, the piano was still a little bit above the water so I sat down and started playing hymns. The organ was just gone.”

She said they picked up Bibles and put them on tables and “did what we could to save anything we could,” adding that she’s glad they stayed to help because no one could access their area for 10 days afterward.

Elsewhere in Big Pine Key, there is still so much damage and debris you’d think Irma hit last week. That debris traced Christine King’s route home after evacuating to the northern part of the state.

“When you came south, you started to see the debris piles, and the closer I got, they got bigger and bigger. By the time we got here, everyone’s life was just laying out in the road. It was tough to see,” King said.

She’s currently living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency while her home is being rebuilt. King is one of several residents working with Phillip Decker, a regional team leader for the Florida Conference.

Decker said there are several hundred volunteers lined up for the next six months and estimates the recovery will take three to four years.

“Volunteers help to show there are people who care,” he said. “To work directly with the homeowners shows that the church is committed to help in their recovery.”

“She (Irma) was a formidable foe,” King said. “It makes it so much easier when everybody sticks together and helps everybody out.”

Another Big Pine resident grateful for the church’s commitment is Diana Kelley. She and her husband, Bomar, had to wait five days before they could get back in their house, which had significant water damage. Five months later, there’s still work to do but they’re able to live there.

Kelley said that in 15 years living there they had never evacuated from a hurricane before. At some point, she was given the business card of Rebecca White, a case manager for the Florida Conference.

“She’s amazing,” Kelley said. “She came back. She keeps coming back. Nobody comes back. It lets us know someone out there really does care about us.”

A realtor’s sign stands in front of a razed house in Big Pine Key, Fla. Photo by Deborah Coble, Florida Conference.

A realtor’s sign stands in front of a razed house in Big Pine Key, Fla. Photo by Deborah Coble, Florida Conference.

Kelley frequently checks on her neighbor Donna Allison, currently living in a FEMA trailer. Allison, who rode out the storm in her own trailer, said that memory is still too painful to discuss, so she prefers to focus on the good will she’s received in the aftermath.

“People have been wonderful,” she said. “A Methodist church donated a bike so I can get out, get my independence back. Someone else donated a washing machine, and it will be here in a week. I can’t wait to do laundry!”

She spoke highly of Kerry Willis, her Florida Conference case manager. “I feel comfortable with her. Other people have come and I kick them out of my yard.”

While the recovery process continues in Big Pine, one homeowner in Sebring is about to celebrate the completion of her home.

Referred by Habitat for Humanity, Nirmala Narayan was the first case opened by the Florida Conference’s case managers in Central Florida.

The first team to arrive at her home was from the Charleston Wesley Foundation in South Carolina. “The volunteers that come work like they’re getting paid for a job. They work as if it’s their own home,” Narayan said. “I tell them all I can offer is they’re always welcome to stay here.”

She’s also always ready to offer up cold drinks and pastries.

Ashley Rape, Central Florida volunteer coordinator, estimated two more weeks of work remains to complete Narayan’s home. “A lot of the teams come and think they’re going to impact lives, but when they leave Nirmala’s house they say they’re the ones who were impacted because of her hospitality,” she said.

The Irma response will take a number of years. Give online to support the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

About the author: Joey Butler is a multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist Communications

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