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'No Floor, No Walls, No Ceiling': Hurricane Irma Recovery Still Underway for Many in Jacksonville

'Most people in the community don't realize how many people are still suffering ... as if it was day one, a year later.'

(TNS) — As a weakening Hurricane Irma bore down on Jacksonville last September, Carol Briggs and her daughter evacuated their Ortega home.

While they were gone, storm surge and high tide combined to cause record flooding across the city, leaving many homes and businesses uninhabitable because of water damage. When Briggs returned two days later, she found that her Sussex Avenue home was one of them.

"Water came up 4 feet in the house," she said.

A year later, Briggs, 71, and her young-adult daughter are living with relatives in Georgia. After months of dealing with flood insurance, interior cleanup and demolition work, her house is a shell and, because her contractor recently bailed on the rebuild project, she has no idea when it may be ready for a homecoming.

"It's there. You can look in the windows, but there's nothing in there," she said. "No floor, no walls, no ceiling."

The Briggses are among thousands of Jacksonville residents whose homes collectively sustained millions of dollars in flood damage during Irma, but are still in recovery mode.

Coordinating the various assistance available for them is the Northeast Florida Long Term Recovery Organization, a collaborative network of governmental, business, faith-based and nonprofit organizations. But their work is complicated by a lack of assessment from the beginning — the number of people who had damage, the extent of the damage.

Immediately after Hurricane Irma, the Federal Emergency Management Agency waived its usual damage assessment requirements in order to get money to the area more quickly.

"At the time, that was a good thing," said Michael Boylan, the organization's chairman.

That move now forces the group to play catch up, tracking down people with unmet needs, determining the extent of those needs and matching them with resources.

Members know that FEMA registered about 112,000 damage claims from Hurricane Irma in Duval County, compared to 3,500 for Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The city of Jacksonville alone claimed $70 million in municipal costs, including $40 million in tree removal alone.

They know an outside research group that did a damage assessment earlier this year made contact with about 221 people with $4 million in damage, but that is suspected to be a fraction of the real cost.

They know an average of 12 people a week seek help even now — mostly the elderly, disabled or poor families with children — but other people may be unaware help is available.

"It's huge, but hard to quantify," said Boylan. "These are working people, retired people, living paycheck to paycheck."

The group meets monthly to go over its progress, such as the numbers of people case managers are assisting, the number of home repair projects completed, and update each other on funding opportunities. One of the more unusual sources is the United Arab Emirates, which wants to give the city a $2.775 million grant to help the neediest Irma victims, according to Dawn Lockhart, city director of strategic partnerships.

The grant, which stemmed from UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba being moved by Irma's impact on Florida communities, is to be considered by the City Council Sept. 24, she said.

"The UAE has a history of doing this with U.S. disasters. They're very excited about the opportunity in Jacksonville," she said. "They are looking at a long-term partnership."

Meanwhile, Builders Care has been on the ground helping Irma victims since October. The faith-based nonprofit construction contractor combines bought and donated material with volunteer and professional labor to provide free and low-cost construction for the needy.

"We're finally turning the page from immediate needs" to long term recovery, said Justin Brown, executive director of Builders Care, who also heads the organization's building and construction committee. "We had pockets [of need] all over town. ... A lot of organizations are trying to do a lot, with limited funding."

Builders Care, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida and Yellow House went the "self-funding" route to help the Ken Knight Drive area on Jacksonville's Northside. Irma flooded many homes in the poor neighborhood, where Brown said many residents are renters or did not have homeowners or flood insurance.

Lad and Anita Daniels were among a contingent of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship volunteers who descended on the area.

Flooding came "three-fourths of the way up walls," Anita Daniels said. "It took everything, left a lot of mold."

Like the Briggses, many of those families are still "camping out" with relatives a year after the storm, she said. "It has been very slow going."

Lad Daniels said he thought he had traversed all of Jacksonville during his stint as an at-large city councilman. But he did not know about Ken Knight Drive in the Washington Heights area, which residents have said has been long neglected by the city. Now Daniels knows, and is impressed with the residents' stamina and patience.

"They have very little of anything," he said. "They've been without a home for about a year and now we're going into another hurricane season. ... The needs of this part of the city have not been addressed."

The volunteer groups — many from churches in Jacksonville and in other states, others rallied through social media — are committed to seeing a recovered Washington Heights. But they need more help, Daniels said.

"I didn't realize how difficult it is and how long it would take," he said.

There are still people in Jacksonville with tarps on their roofs from damage in Hurricane Matthew in 2016, city officials said. And a counterpart in New Jersey told Boylan their recovery organization for Hurricane Sandy in 2012 "is just now winding down."

On the anniversary of Irma, he said he wants the public to realize that thousands of people have not yet been able to put their lives together. He wants them to help the recovery effort.

So does Daniels.

Immediately after a hurricane, he said, "Everybody gets excited, all ready to jump in and do things. As time passes ... the enthusiasm goes away. They feel everything is resolved."

But it's not.

"Most people in the community don't realize how many people are still suffering ... as if it was day one, a year later," said Deirdre Conner, senior director of strategic initiatives and evaluation for the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida, one of the organization's partners.

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109


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