Hurricane Irma caused massive flooding along the First Coast and power outages for more than half of Duval County. Many residents are still repairing homes and replacing waterlogged vehicles.
But some of the hardest hit are stuck without the means to recover quickly.
Tuesday afternoon, Alton Gordon was firing up his grill in front of his Ken Knight Drive home. He said he’s been using it a lot these past couple weeks.
“I’ve been cooking hot dogs and meals for the children and people living around here,” he said.
Gordon lives along the Ribault River on the Northwest side of town. His home along with all of his neighbor’s flooded during Hurricane Irma, some waist-deep. Gordon pointed to a small boat sitting outside his fence and said he rescued about 17 people during the storm.
“This was the worst it’s ever been and I’ve been here 50 years,” he said.
Gordon doesn’t make a lot of money working as a handyman, mechanic and is sometimes commissioned to sketch realistic portraits. But he does what he can to take care of his neighbors. He considers himself a father figure to kids living on his street. His front yard is full of bicycles.
“I just build them for the kids,” he said.
But after Irma, he said his street could use more help and some community volunteers have stepped up.
Deacon George Gillis with Mt. Sinai Baptist Church was helping cook a hundred meals in the church kitchen that evening for the residents of Ken Knight Drive.
“We’re cooking chicken, rice and corn today,” he said while stirring. "Yesterday we served spaghetti, green beans and garlic toast."
Volunteers packed to-go boxes in an assembly line, while others sorted donated clothes.
”We’re volunteering because there are people that need our help, Gillis said.
He said his pastor identified this area as needing extra help and now many other community members are also pitching in, like artist Hope McMath. She’s organizing volunteers and collecting donations at her gallery space, Yellow House.
Volunteers loaded the dinners into the bed of a pick-up truck and delivered them to Ken Knight Drive, which resident Charisse Lamb appreciates. “It’s very much needed out here,” she said.
Lamb isn’t staying in her place after it flooded more than a foot. It smells of mildew. “Close your mouth when you come through,” she said at the beginning of the tour.
She said she came by to move some items out and pick up food for her and her 9-year-old son. Most of her belongings are already out on the curb: Beds, a couch, old photos, a few tables.
“We can’t live back in these houses, there’s water in the walls,” she said. “I’m trying to look for another place but with what money? I don’t have nothing. We weren’t working for like two weeks.”
Lamb lost two weeks of pay when the warehouse where she works temporarily closed because of storm damage.
“The first week I still had to stay in here on the floor,” Lamb said. “I put a piece of plastic down for me and my son, and slept right there on the floor because we don’t have nowhere to go.”
That was before she signed up with FEMA, which is paying for a hotel. She said she learned about the assistance from a news article.
FEMA typically covers rooms for up to two weeks, and a spokeswoman said that can be extended on a case-by-case basis. However, the few hotels in Jacksonville that accept the government assistance as payment are booking up fast, leaving some recipients waiting.
Lamb’s neighbor, Cherlinda Bennett lives with her two daughters and three grandkids. She said a volunteer came by and signed them up for FEMA aid too.
“I’m very worried,” Bennett said. “I am very worried not only about me getting sick, but my grandkids getting sick.”
It takes on average 7-to-10 days for a FEMA inspector to document the damage.
In the meantime, she’s pulled up the carpet and said her freezer doesn’t work. She’s having plumbing issues and the stove shocks her when she tries to use it.
Bennett said her family has a good deal on rent, $350 a month, but she doubts her landlord will fix everything.
“I was told he doesn’t have other units,” she said. “It’s flooded and he ain’t going to be financially stable to knock out the walls to rebuild this house. It’s an old house.”
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Attorney Kevin Rabin said Bennett’s landlord can’t force her to stay in an uninhabitable house, but the state also doesn’t put a lot of obligations on landlords to make repairs.
“To the extent they don’t make repairs that are specified in a lease agreement, the tenant then has the burden to go to court to get that relief and obviously for many low-income tenants that’s not an option,” Rabin said.
Rabin said getting signed up for FEMA immediately is key, as FEMA can also help with home repairs, medical assistance and child care.
A City of Jacksonville spokeswoman said FEMA is canvassing households across the city, including the Ribault area. A FEMA spokeswoman couldn’t confirm if FEMA had already visited the Ken Knight neighborhood.
Rabin said while those in subsidized housing generally have greater protections and requirements to be placed in a similar unit quickly, for people who don’t already get help with housing and suddenly need it, it’s quite the opposite.
“The Jacksonville Housing Authority, which is the primary public housing entity for the entire county of Duval, has approximately a two-to-three year waiting list for public housing,” he said.
Preference is given to the elderly, disabled and those with children.
He said people in this in-between state — unsure if they’ll qualify for FEMA assistance with nowhere to go — can ask local nonprofits for help, and stay with family members if possible, but some may have no option but to look into homeless shelters.