Volunteers help rebuild as homeowners in southern Sarasota County continue to recover from Ian

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Like many of their neighbors in Venice Ranch Mobile Home Estates, Jackie Wheeler, her son Curtis Brown, her brother CJ Hatter and mother Midge Ellis rode out Hurricane Ian at the development’s community center.

The building, a solid brick structure with hurricane-resistant windows, was safe, if a bit cramped, as approximately 50 people took refuge in it during the storm and remained there for about a week, until floodwaters poured in from Hatchet Creek – just south of the family. Residential community owned by 55-and-olders – has receded enough that they can return home.

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County on September 28, 2022. Six days later, Jackie and her family returned home, although they had no power and needed a generator to power their refrigerator. They will return to the center for regular hot meals.

But returning to normal life will take much longer.

The mobile home — which she purchased in November 2019 for $5,000 — will be repaired in part through donated work crews provided by the nonprofit. Global Regeneration and Disaster Recovery Cluster and other volunteer efforts coordinated through the Sarasota County Long Term Recovery Group, which operates under the auspices of the United Way of South Sarasota County.

Chris Johnson, Vice President of Community Impact for United Way of South Sarasota County, organizer of the long-term recovery grouptold the North Port City Commission on January 9 that although Hurricane Ian is a thing of the past for some, many people in Sarasota County live in homes that have not yet been repaired and are sometimes uninhabitable.

Chris Johnson, vice president of community impact for United Way of South Sarasota County.

Chris Johnson, vice president of community impact for United Way of South Sarasota County.

Hurricane Ian is considered the third most expensive hurricane in the United States, after Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017, and the costliest ever in Florida, after causing damage estimated at $113 billion and 149 deaths.

“For a lot of people, this is an everyday occurrence,” Johnson said.

Not that residents of North Port, one of Sarasota County’s toughest upland areas, need a reminder.

He went on to praise the city’s permitting department, which the nonprofit worked with to identify 921 homes in need of repairs.

The Long Term Recovery Group is dealing with more than 359 cases, and in total, 45% of the work coordinated by the group is being carried out in North Harbour, where 10 homes have been completed and four are in the process of being rebuilt.

Jackie Wheeler's home in Venice was severely damaged by Hurricane Ian.  Thanks to the United Way of South Sarasota Hurricane Ian long-term recovery group, the damage has been repaired.

Jackie Wheeler’s home in Venice was severely damaged by Hurricane Ian. Thanks to the United Way of South Sarasota Hurricane Ian long-term recovery group, the damage has been repaired.

Long-term recovery

Formula developed by National volunteer organizations active in disasters It is calculated that it takes 100 days of recovery for every day of search and rescue after a disaster.

Search and rescue efforts in Sarasota County spanned nine days and ended on October 7, 2022, meaning it could take Sarasota County 900 days to recover from Hurricane Ian.

The Long Term Recovery Group helped residents like Jackie and her family follow up with FEMA to receive assistance. More recently, she has worked with faith-based nonprofits such as World Renew and… Caravan of hope To secure building materials to repair these homes and provide volunteer labor to repair these homes.

This recovery will be bolstered by $201.5 million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant funding that will be disbursed through the Resilient SRQ program.

On Jan. 30, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to approve a proposed application timeline and registration criteria for nonprofits and local governments to apply for $70 million in public facilities and infrastructure funds.

Once approved, the Resilient SRQ team will open the application process as quickly as possible.

The money is intended to pay for upgrades to protect against future storm damage, with $25 million already earmarked for raising and widening South River Road between Winchester Boulevard and Tamiami Trail.

Sarasota County is finalizing hiring a construction management company to manage the $40 million allocated to rehabilitate and rebuild homes, said SRQ Resilient Program Director Laurel Varnell.

Contractors will have to go through a competitive bidding process to perform this work.

Early on, the Long Term Recovery Group considered bidding to manage those funds, but, Johnson said, they quickly realized that was too big a task for the nonprofit.

Instead, he hopes to work closely with the construction manager responsible for the $40 million, so that volunteer efforts can help Sarasota County raise the funds.

“For a lot of people, Ian is in the past, so you start having funding issues,” Johnson said. “This year we’re good, but going into 2025, we’re making sure we have the funding to move forward. I think a big part of that will be the CDBG-GR (Resilient SRQ) funding.”

“We thought it was minimal damage.”

Located south of East Venice Avenue and east of Auburn Road, Venice Ranch is a small community of about 180 properties. Each street bears the name of extended members of the Ellis family (no relation to Jackie and her mother).

It’s also the kind of place where neighbors might stop by unannounced to return the previous favor with a bowl of uncooked pasta.

Friends who arrived early from the north in a mobile home to check on the damage to the garden brought tarps to help secure the roofs and healthy neighbors helped patch things up.

“This all happened on our own, and volunteers from the community just showed up and started helping,” Jackie said.

“By the time we were able to return to our home, we thought the damage was minor,” she said.

In addition, six days at the center was all that Midge, who has Alzheimer’s disease, could handle at the center.

“My mom didn’t even know what was going on,” said Jackie, 68, as she sat at a table in the covered garage of her home on Max Road.

“I want to go home,” she told Jackie.

The most serious damage appears to be to the ceiling above the front room, a balcony that had been converted to serve as Jackie’s bedroom. It had holes where she could see the sky.

“We put tarps over this roof just to make sure water doesn’t get through the holes,” she said.

The ceiling in Jackie Wheeler's bedroom began showing signs of rot, shortly after the family thought they had survived Hurricane Ian with minimal damage.  A long-term recovery group of Sarasota County helped Wheeler connect with volunteer groups who helped repair her home.

The ceiling in Jackie Wheeler’s bedroom began showing signs of rot, shortly after the family thought they had survived Hurricane Ian with minimal damage. A long-term recovery group of Sarasota County helped Wheeler connect with volunteer groups who helped repair her home.

“As the months went by, the floor started to get spongy, and we started to see mold. “It was terrible,” she added, noting that most of the furniture stored in the manufactured home was damaged by mold.

By then, Jackie and her family had already contacted FEMA and received some help. But clearly they need more.

FEMA volunteers were helpful but the paperwork was too complicated for Jackie.

“It was unreal…so I gave up. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t have the time to do everything they wanted me to do and there were no other resources.”

Last spring, Jackie spotted a post about the Long Term Recovery Group posted by the pool manager at the club.

She contacted the group, and although it took some time for volunteers to get through the more serious cases, she was eventually matched with her case manager Hilda Dutton, who was then working with the Salvation Army.

Dutton helped her reconnect with FEMA and get as much money as she could to fix the roof, since that front room was a living space.

Jackie filled out an application for assistance through World Renew. John Livingston, a general disaster recovery contractor with United Way of South Sarasota County, inspected the home.

She had to get bids for a new roof. The first contractors had no idea how to repair a manufactured home roof, but she eventually connected with American Roofing and Exteriors, which had experience doing this type of roof repair.

When the cost exceeded available funds, United Way made up the difference.

Workers from World Renew repaired the interior, replaced damaged floorboards, and cleaned the mold.

The family was able to rent a neighbor’s house while the crew worked on their home.

Repairs began on November 1, 2023, with the aim of completing them this month.

Concerned about spending Thanksgiving and Midge’s 94th birthday outside their home, Jackie asked if there was any way to speed things up so they could spend Christmas there.

Volunteers with the World Renew Disaster Recovery Group had to move the interior of Jackie Wheeler's massively manufactured home to the studs to make it safe and sanitary after Hurricane Ian.

Volunteers with the World Renew Disaster Recovery Group had to move the interior of Jackie Wheeler’s massively manufactured home to the studs to make it safe and sanitary after Hurricane Ian.

Three World Renew crews – working three-week shifts – work on their home. Workers took it down to the studs and then rebuilt the interior.

Jackie and her family were able to move back in on December 15, although one of the bathrooms had not been finished.

“Once they brought World Renew in, oh my God, they were amazing,” Jackie said.

The third and final crew arrived on January 7 to finish the work.

Manufactured homes are considered motor vehicles in Florida and are expensive to insure. Like many of the people living in it, Jackie did not have insurance, so without coordinated volunteer work through the long-term recovery group, she would have had to tear down the house.

Even now — 16 months after Hurricane Ian — residents are still approaching the long-term recovery group for the first time, Johnson said.

“We want to know if there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard of LTRG yet, or is experiencing tornado damage,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure the word gets out, because there are still people trickling in who don’t know about it.”

The number to call for assistance is 941-484-4811.

“We are here for the long term,” he added. “We will be here until the end to make sure everyone returns to this safe, healthy, secure and functional home.”

This article originally appeared on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: 16 months later, Sarasota County residents are still dealing with the damage Ian suffered

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