A year ago WJCT reported that some of Jacksonville’s hardest hit by Hurricane Irma were also without the means to recover quickly. And today that’s proving to be true.
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Rewind 12 months. Jacksonville was dealing with the aftermath of Irma. That meant lots of people were staying in hotels or with friends while their homes were gutted and restored.
But that wasn’t the case for every flooded neighborhood, like the Northwest Jacksonville community of Ken Knight Drive, made up of side-by-side roughly 700-square-foot townhouses and some 900-square-foot duplexes.
About 10 days post Irma, Linda Bennett was still living in her flooded house with two daughters and three grandkids.
About three feet of water had spilled into her home from the nearby Ribault River, along with several streets of houses in this low-income area. In Bennett’s home, the floors and beds were soaked, smelling of mildew, along with a slew of other damage: plumbing and electrical issues as well as malfunctioning appliances.
“I am very worried about me not only getting sick but grandkids getting sick,” she said that day in 2017, sitting on the edge of a damp mattress.
A year later her house is still being repaired.
“You know how it was when you came out here the last time,” she said Wednesday. “It was really bad and it was like stank out of here.”
She said living that way for several months was really stressful, but hotels accepting FEMA vouchers were booked up and she didn’t want to burden others by staying with them.
Help From Volunteers
About four months after Irma, volunteers helped tear out her destroyed drywall, but left the bathroom walls intact for privacy. Not long after, Justin Brown, Executive Director of the nonprofit Builder’s Care, rebuilt her walls.
“When I walked into that bathroom it was like a punch in my lungs. It was so moldy and mildewy and I was like we need to get in here as fast as we can,” Brown said.
He said her home was one of the first his organization — the charitable arm of Northeast Florida Builders Association — chose to work on in the area.
Another organization, Yellow House, paid for her family to stay in a hotel.
“I think we’ve gotten about seven families back into safe living in the Ken Knight Drive area,” Brown said. “We just started on two more.”
Bennett’s home is still waiting on new windows. Several homes in the area still have tarps over their roofs, and many are boarded up. Brown believes they probably belong to landlords who don’t want to pay to fix them.
Most people he talks with are surprised to learn many living in communities like Ken Knight Drive are still living in mold-infested homes.
Long Term Recovery
Builder’s Care was funded by only private donations when Brown started the after-Irma work, but now he has grants including one from the First Coast Relief Fund.
“We were able to do 71 roof repairs with the $100,000 they gave us,” he said.
He says that’s thanks to the Northeast Florida Long Term Recovery Organization, which has in part helped link nonprofits together, shared data with them and helped them apply for funding.
Brown said he didn't have experience applying for grants, but now he has several because the recovery organization helped him.
And that’s also how he started working with Yellow House, directed by activist Hope McMath.
She’s been working as sort of an unofficial case manager for many of the families over the past year, focusing on the human side of recovery, getting families appliances, and social services.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has donated materials in the Ken Knight area and supplied volunteers, is also coordinating with McMath and Brown from Builder’s Care.
The Northeast Florida Long Term Recovery Organization is made up of more than 40 nonprofits and other organizations aiding in post-Irma recovery.
Deirdre Conner, with the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida, helped with getting the Long Term Recovery Organization started. She said this is the first time in recent history Jacksonville has needed long term recovery.
“To give you an idea, in Hurricane Matthew there were about 3,600 claims filed to FEMA in Duval County. After Hurricane Irma there were 112,000,” Conner said.
Other cities use the same model after disasters — the one helping Hurricane Sandy victims just recently stopped doing its work six years later.
“Many of the folks that the Long term recovery organization is seeking to assist are people who are often invisible to the wider community, and the impact of the hurricane was disporportant to folks who were already underserved,” she said.
For people who have trouble recovering on their own — like the elderly, disabled and low-income — at least $4 million in damage remains, according to a recent assessment, and that’s likely just a fraction of true need, Conner said.
More Money On The Way
Something that may help is a recent grant from the United Arab Emirates. It’s giving the city more than $2.7 million, and a large chunk of that is earmarked for Ken Knight Drive home repairs and infrastructure. And that Includes a quarter-million for Builder’s Care.
The grant summary reads in part:
“The neighborhood is comprised of a very high-concentration of individuals and families at or below the poverty level who are renting costly and poor quality homes from absentee landlords or are residing in the nearby public housing development, Washington Heights. Due to both the past foreclosure crises and the recent hurricanes, the landlords did not make the needed repairs to their rental units and families are still residing in dilapidated homes with unsanitary conditions.”
Brown is already surveying neighbors about what upgrades are most needed.
Still Need Help?
People still needing after-Irma help can call the 211 to get in the pipeline for recovery services. And others who want to help with the efforts can call the Northeast Florida Long Term Recovery Organization or any of its partners.