Heroes with hammers and saws
By: Lisa Loren
“What is the use of preaching the gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?” William Booth posed this question in the late 1800s; over 100 years later the question is as relevant today as it was when he presented this challenge to the world.
Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm, hit Collier County, Florida, on Sept. 10, 2017. Trees toppled onto roofs; other roofs were ripped from homes; exterior shells were shredded, and flooding destroyed floors, walls, ceilings, cabinets, appliances and furniture. Many residents lost everything.
More than two years later, they are still struggling to rebuild. Families and seniors who were already hard pressed to put food on the table were exposed to the worst of the devastation. Though previous storm patterns could never have predicted the people least able to recover would be the worst hit, this was the reality for our families, friends and neighbors in southwest Florida, especially in the cities of Immokalee, Copeland, Everglades City, Chokoloskee and Goodland.
Livelihoods here are primarily based on agriculture and fishing. Men and women at the mercy of Mother Nature to make a living endure in a perpetual state of poverty or near poverty. Resiliency is not in their vocabulary, though persistence, determination, hard work and survival are the esprit de corps of their very nature.
In keeping with Booth’s vision for practical living assistance as a real example of Christ’s love, The Salvation Army has a longstanding and powerful policy of disaster assistance to those in need. To that end, Ashley Jones was appointed to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) in 2016 after more than 15 years responding to natural disasters as a Salvation Army soldier.
Jones’s commitment to helping Collier County recover from Hurricane Irma led to partnerships with other humanitarian organizations.
One of these was Team Rubicon, a group dedicated to helping the victims of natural disasters. Its membership is unique: 70 percent are military veterans, and 20 percent are first responders. It had been sponsored as a VOAD member by Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe of The Salvation Army. Led by former service personnel whose commitment to serve is deep in their DNA, Team Rubicon celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2020.
Because of Jones’ reputation for excellence, knowledge and practical experience, David Venables, Team Rubicon’s deputy director of rebuild operations, knew that by partnering and building on the strengths of the two organizations, they could repair and rebuild homes throughout Collier County.
Team Rubicon has more than 100,000 volunteers. They’re run through a training program that covers “muck and gut” cleaning up, roof tarping, tree sawing, heavy equipment operations and damage assessment, among other topics. Before any can deploy – whether to small-scale flooding or a massive fire response – they must pass background checks and complete two FEMA classes in the National Incident Management System.
Upon completion of “basic training,” volunteers earn their badge of honor on their first deployment – a gray T-shirt with the Team Rubicon logo and a “space bar” for their names or call signs.
It isn’t the shirt, but the sweat, dirt and sometimes blood that soaks the shirt, that show these heroes offer hope through the physically demanding work of responding to natural disasters.
There’s a deep desire to provide purpose and comradeship post-service within the organization. Given the reality of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives – veteran suicides have a higher annual death toll than active-service combat casualties – the Clay Hunt Fellowship Cohort Program was born. In the spring of 2018, the eighth round of class members was selected from hundreds of applicants. The eight members of “Cohort 8” would have a profound and lasting impact on Collier County, particularly the town of Immokalee.
Team Rubicon committed to a one-year partnership with The Salvation Army. The morning of Sept. 17, 2018, found the Cohort 8 team at the Disaster Assistance Center Naples of The Salvation Army.
Repair and rebuild training began immediately as disaster case managers of The Salvation Army provided the requests for help from local families and seniors. Some sought repairs; some, funds for roof replacements; and some, total demolitions and rebuilds of their homes.
In the end, 124 residents benefited. Families and seniors who had no hope and no options, who had no insurance, inadequate FEMA assistance and certainly no savings accounts from which to rebuild their lives, received not only safe and comfortable homes but security, safety, peace of mind and a renewed spirit of hope. The Cohort 8 team led 185 “Gray Shirt” volunteers repairing 40 residences and funding repairs on an additional 33 dwellings, thereby turning hurricane victims into survivors.
A new component to Team Rubicon’s long list of services was developed at the Florida rebuild. Working with Paradise Coast Builders, a local partner with The Salvation Army repair program, total rebuilds were initiated. In collaboration with owner Gene Silguero, the Cohort 8 team built two homes from the ground up. Where complete devastation had shattered the lives of two families, the renewed hope, resiliency of spirit and simple, safe living conditions now stood strong.
The spirit of service and championing of recovery for families following a disaster is the heart of both The Salvation Army and Team Rubicon. These two committed organizations have partnered successfully, bringing together all aspects of humanitarian aid in disaster response and recovery. Their heart to turn Hurricane Irma victims into thriving survivors has changed the lives of families and seniors and replaced trauma with hope for the communities of Collier County.
Lisa Loren is a long-term recovery coordinator with the Naples, Florida, Corps.
Fearing the worst as Hurricane Irma approached Southwest Florida, Dalila Grimaldo and her husband Candelario Rodriguez left their beloved home to stay with their son in a more secure location. The moment they felt it safe to return, they rushed back to inspect the damages. They were heartbroken to discover the extent of the destruction.
The couple had lived in Immokalee for 40 years and had been fortunate to weather previous, lesser hurricanes with few issues. This time, though, would be different.
Immediately, they could see their roof was compromised. Nothing, however, prepared them for the scene when they opened their front door to find ceilings collapsed to the floor from the weight of torrential rains. The deluge of water left the floors (to quote the homeowner) “squishy” as well as uneven, which created a huge tripping hazard for this senior couple. Safety was a constant source of anxiety.
To complicate matters further, their severely limited income was well below the poverty line. The first step was to complete the FEMA aid application. While they doubtfully awaited a decision from the federal agency, by necessity, they continued to live in this precarious place.
The family did not have homeowners’ insurance. Fortunately, FEMA did award funds for both property damage and rental assistance. As landowners, they were determined to find a way to repair their home and diligently saved every penny possible. Unfortunately, the integrity of the structure was so compromised, it was imperative that they find alternate housing. They put down deposits for an apartment, electricity and water.
Sadly, Candelario got deathly sick and passed away in September 2018, barely one year after Hurricane Irma. Dalila mourned her husband’s death, and everything in her life stalled. She vacated the apartment and returned to the unsafe home. This widow truly needed help to transition from disaster victim to disaster survivor.
Through our partnership with Team Rubicon, Paradise Coast Builders and Dalila’s remaining FEMA funds, we can build her a new home. Although Dalila was hopeful we could help her save the home that held so many treasured memories of the life she shared with her husband for so many years, she understands the integrity of the structure was so compromised, it was unsafe to repair.
Jesús and María Montez
Jesús Montez and his wife, María, struggle to care for their two granddaughters on a fixed disability income. Both Jesús and María have extremely poor health with medical conditions that require weekly visits. Nonetheless, this couple is doggedly determined to raise their granddaughters in a safe, secure and loving home environment.
“Worried” and “frightened” did not come close to describing the fear that motivated them to seek shelter in their son’s apartment as Hurricane Irma bore down on Collier County, Florida, on Sept. 10, 2017. The couple and their granddaughters Alyssa, 7, and Bethany, 10, gathered just enough belongings to get by in their son’s cramped quarters until they could return home. They had no way of knowing their worst fears were about to be realized.
Returning to their house shortly after the storm passed, the Montez family was devastated. Nothing was salvageable. Absolutely nothing. The roof had been ripped from the home and the contents, drenched with enormous amounts of rain. The ceilings and walls were wet and crumbling. The floors were bowed and splintering. The air conditioning and appliances were damaged beyond repair. Furniture could not be salvaged. Clothing and personal items were a complete loss.
The family desperately tried to remain in their home while applying for FEMA aid; yet the smell of mold and the appalling state of the structure was unbearable. They received $10,000 for repairs – not nearly enough to replace all that was gone. Hopeless and miserable, the Montez family were at a loss as to how to even begin to put their home and their lives back together. They truly needed help with the logistics of navigating the recovery of such overwhelming losses.
“The damage was so extensive, you could see the sky from inside the dining room,” said Clara Herrera, disaster case manager for The Salvation Army. “Only rebuilding could restore normalcy to this family’s lives.”
Thanks to Team Rubicon and its partners, the Montezes have renewed hope. Work began on their new home in May 2019, and the family moved in that November.
Earl and Elizabeth Bishop
With great trepidation, Earl Bishop, a U.S. Army veteran, and his wife Elizabeth decided to evacuate their house in Immokalee prior to Hurricane Irma’s landfall. They were stunned by what awaited them when they returned.
Strong winds had destroyed their small home’s roof, and torrential rains had poured in. The water gushed through the ceilings and down the walls, decimating cabinets and floors. Their appliances were also ruined. Everything, from top to bottom, would have to be removed and replaced. Not one piece of their home or their lives was left untouched.
Fortunately, the Bishop family was referred to Disaster Case Manager Aileen Castro of The Salvation Army for help navigating the complex process of getting their lives back together. By the time the Bishops met with Castro, they had already ripped out all the water-soaked drywall in hopes of eliminating mold issues. The elderly couple cares for three young grandchildren during the week while their mom works as an elementary school teaching assistant for Collier County.
Whether dealing with mold or exposed wall studs, safety was a daily source of anxiety. With an infant, a toddler and a preschooler, Elizabeth and Earl had their hands full. Making a bad situation worse, Earl is a disabled veteran with many health issues. This couple indeed needed help to transition from disaster victims to disaster survivors. Another constant source of anxiety was financial hardship. The family did not have homeowners’ insurance and received from FEMA only a small amount of financial aid, which they stretched as far as possible. These meager funds did not come close to completing any repairs.
At this point, The Salvation Army partnered with Team Rubicon and Paradise Coast Builders to bring hope back into the Bishop’s lives and begin making their house safe and comfortable again.
The first order of business was replacing the roof to prevent further damage. Paradise Coast Builders, owned by Gene and Rosalie Silguero, quickly dried in and reroofed the home. The Bishops were beside themselves as their hope was renewed.
Then Team Rubicon set to work under the leadership of the Cohort 8 Clay Hunt Fellows and their team of volunteers. Eliot Tucker led group members as they ripped up floors, shredded the bathroom and annihilated the kitchen in very short order. The real fun began as piece by piece and board by board, the shell of a building began to be reshaped into a home. Team Rubicon volunteers honored their code of service with sweat and hard work over the course of two months.
Exciting changes could be seen on a daily basis. Floors were rebuilt, walls were replaced, kitchen and bathroom fixtures as well as cabinets were installed, and painting was completed. Always working side by side, Team Rubicon ordered gravel while The Salvation Army ordered sod.
March 5, 2019, approached with an air of excited anticipation. Helping a family regain their peace, hope, joy and safety in a home destroyed by Hurricane Irma nearly 1½ years before and now rebuilt, has been an incredible journey.
Team Rubicon and its Cohort 8 Clay Hunt Fellows and dedicated volunteers, The Salvation Army Disaster Team and Paradise Coast Builders have been blessed to be involved in changing the lives of this family. By joining forces, these devoted individuals put boots on the ground and invested materials, labor and heart to restore hope and rebuild the Bishops’ home.