Volunteers: Disaster relief teams aid in Irma cleanup
“These guys are angels,” said homeowner Michael Sullivan. “You couldn’t even see my house.”
The guys he was pointing to, standing behind his home on Heathwood Drive, were volunteers who had come all the way from Tennessee to help with disaster relief after Hurricane Irma.
The Disaster Response Teams from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro and other Methodist churches in Tennessee drove 18 hours to lend their assistance and expertise to help local residents recover from the effects of the storm.
“It puts a lump in my throat to see all the work they’re doing. They’re the perfect example of what Christians should be,” said Sullivan.
Mostly retirees, the crew of 14 men, and one woman, Tamika Parker from Cookeville, came prepared to literally do the heavy lifting and cutting.
Armed with multiple chainsaws including one gigantic 32” saw, the teams pulled Bobcats and tractors on trailers, enabling them to cut up and remove massive trees, which were plentiful on the ground and on houses in the storm’s aftermath. Their vehicles and equipment were emblazoned with “Disaster Response Team” identification, and they even wore matching caps and T-shirts, although depending whether they had been sawing, digging, or just sweating, the shirts did take on different colors as the work progressed.
The work they did on Marco Island and Goodland was only the most recent in a long string of disaster responses the volunteers have undertaken, going back to Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
“We go out several times each year,” said team leader Paul Givens. “I haven’t added them all up, but it must be close to 100.” In addition to hurricanes, the group travels to help out the victims of floods, tornadoes, forest fires and other natural disasters.
Headquarters for the group on Marco Island was the Wesley United Methodist Church on South Barfield Drive. Pastor Kirk Dreiser said his congregation had stepped up, providing food and lodging for the visiting volunteers, and working with the Sunrise Rotary Club on Marco Island to assist with the work and coordinate which sites to concentrate on. Dreiser singled out Natalia Armstrong of the Rotary Club for her coordination work.
“The hardest thing has been communication,” said Dreiser on Friday. “We still don’t have the internet here at the church.” Their power had been restored the previous week, only to go out again during their Sunday service, he said.
The teams from Tennessee took a break for lunch in the fellowship hall at the church. There, on Friday, Judy and Ken Boston dished up food for the volunteers, including homemade brownies and Key lime pie.
“This is the best hospitality we’ve seen anywhere,” said worker Art Schroth of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. While they appreciated the food, their dessert of choice, he said, was Ibuprofen, to deal with the aches and pains that go along with the hard physical labor they were performing.
While one team of Tennessee volunteers dealt with the trees that had fallen on Sullivan’s home, another worked at the Goodland residence of George Vellis and his wife, noted local artist Tara O’Neill. Their home had standing water during the storm, trees down all around and on the house, and the roof on Tara’s studio in no condition to repel water.
“I can’t believe you guys did all this,” said O’Neill as she surveyed the progress at her home. “Oh my God, you hauled all that stuff.” Team leader Ken Hunter joined James Henderson up on the roof to fasten a blue tarp in place, while other crew members cut the massive tree which had provided deep shade into pieces and piled them by the street.
Goodland, said Dreiser, absorbed a heavier blow than Marco Island proper, and will need continued relief support, long after the traveling disaster relief teams have gone. He urged those on Marco Island who are able to help.
“If anyone on Marco Island is wondering, Goodland is not okay,” said Dreiser. “If you have a heart, turn it to toward Goodland. They need everything.”