Two meetings were held Thursday in Marianna addressing the challenge of long-term recovery in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
The North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group, made up of Jackson and Calhoun county recovery teams, met at 9, giving the various subcommittees within it a chance to update each other on their assignments.
The committees are individually concentrating on: Agriculture and forestry; economic and business recovery; emotional and spiritual health; fundraising; housing and construction; local government affairs; marketing; schools; unmet needs; and volunteer coordination.
Kristy Terry, of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, was hired in late April as executive director of the LTR.
She led Thursday’s meeting, announcing a recent agreement with the Jackson County Commission that will eventually give LTR ready space for headquarters in a building at Endeavor.
With the lease signed now, LTR can seek grants to help improve the structure to make it fit for occupancy. It needs a roof, some significant clean-up and other work. Terry said the group hopes to set up a work day soon to help get it cleaned up and running. She also said that the space might be shared with several volunteer groups that are here helping in the area’s long term recovery efforts and need a place to house their crews. She said there may also be room for several recovery service providers that need satellite offices.
Terry also introduced Coba Beasley, who leads the Chipola Baptist Association. That group is in charge of distributing the 30 FEMA-provided temporary dwellings that were donated to Jackson and Calhoun counties. Jackson County received 20 of those, with the other 10 going to the adjacent county to the south.
The first of the set was delivered Thursday morning and work is ongoing to the others, previously occupied, ready for local residents. Mattresses had to be replaced in about 18, and there were other things to do to get them ready. They are being staged at CBA’s property and sent out once they’re ready and all the necessary paperwork is complete. The focus, in choosing who receives the dwellings temporarily, has been on seniors and on families with small children.
Beasley also shared a story associated with that program. A volunteer plumber who’d arrived to help one family get situated in one of those FEMA units ultimately decided to buy the family a new one, and set it up for them as well.
The donation of the trailers is a pilot program for FEMA, and Terry commented that there are “a lot of cooks in the kitchen when you’re dealing with this, lots of boxes to check and challenging on a lot of fronts,” but that the community is grateful to have been chosen as a test ground for such a program. The people who receive them temporarily are expected to occupy them for about six months, with a goal of finding permanent housing by then, so that the units can be reclaimed and reassigned temporarily to other families in need.
The RVs provide a small measure of relief in the major housing crisis that both Jackson and Calhoun counties faced even before the storm and which now is at a critical level.
On that front, Terry said, attempts are underway to get financial assistance for a comprehensive housing study that will help the counties address the issue for the long term.
According to Rick Pettis of Melvin Engineering, the company leading efforts to obtain that funding, storm damage occurred to 2,375 of the 5,927 homes known to exist in Calhoun County, with 414 having major damage.
Of the 20,820 homes in Jackson County, 5,518 were reported damaged and of those, 1,135 had major damage.
The immediate goal is now to more specifically categorize the damaged dwellings, as to which are site-build and how many are mobile homes, and use that information to seek appropriate housing solutions for the two counties.
Terry said the LTR is committed to finding the most fitting answers. “It’s not just a cookie-cutter solution, not just apartment complexes” that the group is expecting to arise. Instead, she said, the community is more interested in trying to find resources that can bring “affordable single family housing” to the community. “It’s not as easy as all that,” she added. “Rick is working hard to make sure ideas are explored that will work for our communities specifically.”
Other updates shared Thursday included the following: More than 200,000 volunteer hours have been logged in the counties since the storm, with the volunteer teams involved pouring roughly $4 million of their own funds into the counties.
And on that front, representatives of a Mennonite group attended the meeting, saying they plan to be here for the local community over the long haul to help build or repair homes. Their commitment could last for years, the team leader said.
The group has just one problem, with which the group could relate: They can’t find a house to rent as they’re trying to settle down to work. When asked whether they’d be willing to live in a place that they’d fix up in order to stay there, the team leader said his team would be very open to that.
Before that meeting ended, the group was talking with an individual who shared the story of one family she’s concerned about.
A support-services team for veterans is seeking a grant that would help bring more help to that group in the way of deposits, utilities and other costs associated with relocating from homes left uninhabitable.
Other helping organizations, like the Salvation Army, United Way of Northwest Florida, a United Methodists national service organization, and the local Wright Foundation spoke of the projects they have ongoing in the county. The Wright Foundation has received and continues to receive truck-loads of donated high-quality shingles to help locals recover. The first rounds of distribution are going to municipal employees and first responders in need. The program is expected to open up to the general public soon.
And one of Thursday’s speaker said that, through her sister, she was able to “put a bug in Melinda Gates’ ear” about the local need.
Whether anything comes of that mention, Terry said the important thing is that the word was spread and helps keep the local need in the public eye. “Never pass on the opportunity to share our story,” she said. “You never know what might come.”
As the community continues to recover, the need is still great. Cleaning supplies are in real demand as families whose homes are still habitable, or nearly so, try to get back to normal.
Supplies of that sort can be taken to Innovative Charities of Northwest Florida, located at the corner of State Road 71 and Rocky Creek Road. That organization and its thrift store have been serving as a collection point for certain donations.
Legal Services of North Florida has also been helping in the recovery effort, helping residents deal with conflicts that have arisen after the storm between them and their landlords, or contractors, insurance companies or mortgage holders, and those who face potential bankruptcy. The team is also seeing a fair number of cases in which residents are on heir property but have no title and therefore have limited access to resources that can help.
Local libraries can be used to access an online intake portal for the legal team.