MIDDLEBURG – As Clay County begins preparations for another hurricane season, there are still hundreds of people wading through the messy waters, destroyed houses and dramatically different lives …
MIDDLEBURG – As Clay County begins preparations for another hurricane season, there are still hundreds of people wading through the messy waters, destroyed houses and dramatically different lives Hurricane Irma left behind last September.
The damage Irma created in Clay County was permanent for some, temporary for others, but destructive for many. Some 1,300 homes were impacted with 500 destroyed. Despite the county’s best efforts, money still isn’t flowing in fast enough to get these families back on their feet. Just last Thursday, though, on July 12, the county did take a big step forward in securing more money for families affected by Irma last September.
At a meeting hosted by Clay County Emergency Management at the Middleburg High cafeteria, Clay County Emergency Management Director John Ward, spoke to over 100 people about three major programs that could help families affected by Irma finally get the funds they need. Ward discussed the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, which provides money to families wishing to elevate their homes and the state’s home acquisition program, which serves as a way for the state to purchase the property of families who, rather than rebuilding, would prefer to simply say goodbye, and finally, a Community Development and Block Grant.
Potentially more important than all of that, though, was a survey Ward asked all in attendance to complete. This survey asked participants what kind of damage they saw occur from Irma and what their plan was moving forward. This survey, according to Ward, is of the utmost importance in securing the most funds possible for Clay County.
“We can’t help you if you don’t know what you need,” Ward said. “We did a lot of the public meetings, but we were still shellshocked at what was going on. Now we’ve had some time. These programs are getting ready to roll out in the next couple of months so we have to be prepared.”
Ward said he is ready to fight for the residents after seeing the damages firsthand.
“I want to fight for our community and get every dollar we can get because this is going to be a competitive process,” Ward said, explaining that Clay County was competing with not only the damage left behind by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, but with Hurricane Maria, which destroyed half of Puerto Rico, as well.
Last November, officials launched the new nonprofit Recovering Clay that was meant to spearhead volunteer fundraising to collect money to aid needy families. One woman at the November kickoff event for Recovering Clay, Carol Gardner, saw her entire home destroyed by the hurricane.
“I saw my entire life floating in front of me,” Gardner said at the time, remembering the first time she was able to make it into her home after Irma.
Now, 10 months later, and already nearly two months into the 2018 hurricane season, Gardner’s home is no more. Due to the damage done on her house, which experienced waters that rose over six feet, Gardner and her husband learned that the only option was to completely demolish her home. She was only offered $80,000 by National Flood Insurance, which hardly covered the costs of her waterfront home along Black Creek.
“We’re still very shy on what we should be getting, especially after losing everything you have,” Gardner said.
Not only is Gardner short on the funds she should be receiving to build a new house on the plot of land her old home used to sit, she’s still responsible for paying her mortgage on the destroyed house every month.
One might question why Gardner would choose to rebuild in the same spot on which her previous home was destroyed, but for her, the answer was easy – it’s home.
“To be able to rebuild means a lot,” Gardner said. “My husband and I were married there. My daughter and son-in-law were married there. It’s a beautiful piece of property and we love it. I mean, it’s our home and it always will be.”
Now, over half a year since the fateful day Irma flooded her home, Gardner still finds herself surprised at everything she’s been through.
“We had never flooded before and we never really thought we would,” Gardner said. “Lesson learned for sure, but I never thought that if we did ever flood, we would have to go through so much red tape to get our lives back.”
Gardner is frustrated about the entire situation. She’s unaware of where local Irma fundraiser money ended up and she doesn’t know anyone that received any of it. She’s tired of crossing through red tape after red tape just to get some help, but most of all, she’s just ready to be home. Following Irma, Gardner stayed with friends and family to ensure she and her husband had a roof over their heads.
“I’m tired of all of this,” Gardner said. “I just want my home and my life back.”
To learn more about the home assistance programs mentioned here, call Clay County Emergency Management at (904) 284-7703.