By Rick Burnette
Sweeping Key West as a Category 4 hurricane, Irma had lost considerable punch by the time the storm passed over north Florida. Despite weakened winds, during the early hours of September 12, 2017, Jacksonville was drenched with torrential rains.
Washington Heights Estates is among Jacksonville’s northern neighborhoods hit particularly hard by the resulting flooding. This low-income community is situated along the Ribault River, a tributary of the St. Johns. According to Duval County emergency preparedness maps, portions of the neighborhood are in a Zone A evacuation area. Even though residents could recall other times that the Ribault overflowed its banks, the September flood – with 20 inches of rain combined with high tides – was unprecedented. Waist-high water quickly rose into the lowest lying homes, particularly along Ken Knight Drive, forcing residents to flee.
While some of the affected had nowhere to go, others found shelter with neighbors or left the community until flood waters receded. They all were faced with ruined floors, walls, furniture, appliances and food. Many of the homes suffered damaged roofs from fallen trees.
Despite local news reports of the flooding, initial relief and recovery were minimal. “Forgotten” is a word often used to describe this marginalized community that is not only flood-prone, but overwhelmed with other challenges. Recovery efforts were also hampered by unorganized leadership and the lack of homeowner and flood insurance among residents.
Early assistance from area churches and the Red Cross came in the form of donations of food, water, cleaning supplies and clothing. One of the first congregations that called attention to the needs of Washington Heights Estates was Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church pastored by Rev. R. L. Gundy.
As days following the storm stretched into weeks and with cold weather on the way, flood-damaged houses remained unrepaired. Homes in which waterlogged drywall had been removed from walls were left exposed; but others that retained these damaged materials had become infested with mold.
By October, Rev. Gundy reached out to Hope McMath, the executive director of Yellow House, a local service organization. McMath began connecting Washington Heights Estates residents with FEMA and started assembling a coalition of partners for the reconstruction of homes.
Justin Brown is one such partner. As the director of Builders Care, a faith-based Jacksonville nonprofit that provides affordable or no-cost construction services for low income clients, he arranged with the United Way of Northeast Florida to help fund needed roof repairs.
Rachel Gunter Shapard, who serves as the associate coordinator of CBF Florida, shared that she and Alan Williams, a retired emergency management official who contracts with CBF Global Missions, became aware of the Washington Heights Estates situation through Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD). A Jacksonville resident, Rachel then consulted with the local United Way chapter and was directed to Hope McMath who offered an appraisal of critical, long-term recovery needs. In response, Rachel and Ray Johnson, CBF Florida’s coordinator, contacted CBF Global Missions for additional funding support and assistance with recruiting volunteer teams.
At that point, CBF Global Missions was already engaged in disaster response related to Hurricane Harvey in Texas as well as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico where CBF Florida was also assisting. Not unlike Washington Heights Estates, the Texas and Puerto Rico communities in which CBF is engaged are also vulnerable to disasters and face challenges in accessing necessary resources for recovery.
Since the beginning of 2018, CBF has mobilized several teams of volunteers and provided funds to cover approximately one-half of the cost needed to restore each home in Washington Heights Estates. Collaboration has continued with Builders Care as well as the PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and World Renew, the Christian Reformed Church’s relief agency that conducted needs assessments in the neighborhood.
In early June, a small group of CBF representatives and local partners followed up with five restored households, each home having rebuilt walls, fresh paint and no sign of mold. Donated appliances and furnishings were installed during the visit.
Homeowner Will Dixon shared that his residence, on the banks of the Ribault, was previously owned by his grandmother. Despite experiencing high water at other times, the Irma flood was the first to cause damage. With his home restored and equipped with new furnishings and appliances, Mr. Dixon expressed joy just to get his grandmother’s house back.
A sixth home, owned by Wayne Collins, was still undergoing renovation. Mr. Collins – a retired builder – suggested a type of wall insulation which he described as quality, affordable and easy to install. His recommendation was affirmed by Alan Williams and Justin Brown.
Since June, CBF and partners have begun work on two additional homes, including the residence of Nate Thomas. Mr. Thomas reportedly intends for his property to serve as a community center and a safe place for local youth; an investment in the long-term resilience of Washington Heights Estates.
CBF Florida has determined that around 20 more residences are still in need of restoration. Teams with roofing experience will be needed to complete some of these repairs.
In her Pentecost sermon, Rachel Gunter Shapard reflected on the Washington Heights recovery effort, stating, “When members in the community heard about their need for furnishings, an unlikely assemblage of different races, varying socioeconomic statuses and differing religious beliefs came together to clean the rooms, move in furniture, and turn a shell of a house into a home fit for living. This unlikely assemblage might never have come together or even met one another if it weren’t for the beckoning winds of the Spirit. Now they are brothers and sisters; they are neighbors who know one another’s names; they have borne each other’s burdens. Even amidst their differences, this gathering that would have looked strange to some, was transformed in receiving the invitation of the Spirit to create not just the semblance of heaven, but the true realm of God right here on earth.”
The renewing winds of the Spirit are indeed blowing through the streets of Washington Heights Estates and CBF partners are privileged to be a part of this unlikely assemblage.
Rick Burnette is a CBF field personnel serving as the U.S. Disaster Response Coordinator. Learn more about how you can be involved through CBF Disaster Response at www.cbf.net/dr-volunteer.