‘It’s been a rough year’: Immokalee residents, leaders still rebuilding a year post-Hurricane Irma
Editor's note:Earlier version of the story reported Southwest Florida was hit by 185 mph winds. The correct number is 115 mph.
Debbie Coe sat on a stack of weathered garden pavers and looked out at the dirt plot that used to belong to her Immokalee trailer home.
"This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life," the 62-year-old said as she wiped sweat and tears from her face on a hot summer day.
A year later and Coe still doesn't have a home to go to.
For eight months following Hurricane Irma, Coe and her 6-year-old great-nephew found refuge at a brother's house nearby. Since August, the pair has lived in a pink-colored camper at a nearby RV park in Immokalee.
All Coe has left of her home is two barely standing outdoor sheds, roughed-up water features and plants that were whipped badly by the storm.
Her trailer home at the end of Plum Street in northern Immokalee was no match for the up to 115 mph winds and nonstop rain brought on when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 10, 2017. Water damage created harmful mold in her trailer and a fallen tree caused parts of the ceiling to collapse.
A year later in Immokalee — a low-income agriculture community where mobile homes make up roughly a quarter of the housing — some families are still struggling, living homeless or in temporary housing, while others have picked up the pieces.
Coe may have a camper, but it's not home, she said.
She left her heart in the plot of dirt where a staghorn fern that once belonged to her mother is hung by a rope and chain on a tree limb cut short after falling on her trailer.
She prayed the fern would survive Irma's wrath.
And it did. Just like Coe has.
'We’ll be fine. We are fine'
Nearly $3 billion in federal assistance from FEMA, the Small Business Administration and the National Flood Insurance Program has gone toward restoring homes, businesses and public facilities severely damaged by Irma, according to a news release from FEMA.
In Collier County, FEMA has provided more than $35.5 million in grants to homeowners and renters, according to Melanie Barker, a FEMA spokeswoman.
Following Irma, the county was designated for FEMA's Direct Housing program, which provided travel trailers and apartments to 43 eligible households. Of the 43 families, 26 have moved on to longer-term housing. Seventeen households remain in FEMA-provided apartments.
More than $3.6 million has helped Immokalee families with basic home repairs and rental assistance, according to FEMA.
Coe applied for aid last year and received $8,000, some of which she put toward purchasing a new roof for her trailer home, which suffered irreparable damage from the storm. The rest she used for living expenses.
Coe said she just wanted to go home.
"Everyone needs their own little space,” she said. “That’s just the way it is, you know.”
But her new roof wasn't enough to salvage the trailer. She and Casey moved in with her brother's family and had an offer to stay at another brother's place in Georgia, but Coe didn't want to leave Immokalee.
She had moved with her family to the unincorporated community in eastern Collier County about 40 years ago, when she was just a teen from Indiana.
It was home. And she also didn't want to take her great-nephew away from the only home he'd ever known.
"He's been through a lot. A little kid can't understand this," she said. "I didn’t want to put more on my child than what he's already gone through.”
Coe didn't ask for much help, getting by with what she could months after the storm, but the community had her back.
Staff at The Guadalupe Center in Immokalee, a nonprofit organization that runs educational programs for low-income children, found out about Coe's situation from her granddaughter, who tutors there.
After Irma, the center set funds from donors and grants aside to help eligible families get back on their feet, said Dawn Montecalvo, president of The Guadalupe Center.
"The longer their homes are uninhabitable, mold grows and conditions worsen, making them irreparable. So we chose families in Immokalee to rebuild their homes from the ground up," Montecalvo said.
Working with several local, national and international organizations, the center was able to fund a new concrete home for Coe, making her house the center's first rebuild post-Irma.
Construction won't begin until this month and is estimated to cost between $75,000 and $80,000. The center is in the process of approving rebuilds for several other families.
“I didn’t have a clue (my granddaughter) did that,” Coe said. “I was just bawling when I found out they wanted to build me a home. What a blessing.”
‘Immokalee has found its voice’
Ellie Ramirez, coordinator for the Immokalee Unmet Needs Coalition, a multi-agency collective that began post-Irma to assist with long-term disaster recovery in Immokalee, said housing in the community was a problem before the storm and is even worse now.
"But the hurricane has also been a blessing. I feel like Immokalee has found its voice and now the county is helping solve its problems," Ramirez said.
The storm and its devastating impact in the rural community gained national media attention last year, prompting numerous organizations worldwide to help families with short and long-term recovery, groups like Rural Neighborhoods, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Mennonite Disaster Service, a faith-based nonprofit.
Coe said she couldn't be more grateful for her neighbors and the kind strangers who have come from all over to help.
“We’ll be fine. We are fine,” Coe said. “This whole process, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. And I don’t have any, you know. But not to have a place to live, I’ve found, has been the worst thing to happen to me.”
She also lost her husband not long before the storm.
“It’s been a rough year, but it’s going to get better,” she said as she smiled at her plot of dirt, which would soon be home again.
“My family could’ve been hurt, but they weren’t. It destroyed my home, but that can be replaced."
‘I knew God would provide’
Norma Contreras, who's in her 70s, had beans simmering in a large pot on her new stainless steel stove while her 1-year-old great-granddaughter slept soundly in a cool crib.
The savory scent of the beans traveled quickly throughout her small four-bedroom house, nearly unrecognizable a year after Irma tore off the roof's shingles, flooded its foundation and made her family sick from black mold.
The retired teacher and business owner evacuated with her family — her grandson and his fiance and their daughter, 2½ months old at the time — to LaBelle to stay with relatives while the storm passed.
Contreras stayed only one night before heading back home after the storm. The rest of her family stayed in LaBelle for a couple more days to care for the baby.
A lot has changed since then.
A year ago, Contreras said she ate from canned goods because there was no electricity in her house for weeks. It was a far cry from the hearty dinner she cooked on a recent summer day.
She spent countless sleepless nights in her stuffy house not knowing if and when her AC, damaged by flooding, would be repaired. A year later her home has a new central AC system and additional units in a couple of rooms.
Still, water trapped under Contreras’ slightly elevated house harvested black mold, causing her and her family to cough and sneeze for weeks. It also expanded the damp wooden floors, lifting off the subfloor and creating dangerous splinters.
Now the house has tiled flooring and a new roof.
Contreras has weathered many storms in her life, both in the literal and metaphorical senses.
"I always know how to take care of myself," she said with tears in her eyes. "That's a prayer of mine, that I'll always be able to take care of myself."
Born and raised in Texas, Contreras learned how to provide for her Mexican-Spaniard migrant family at an early age. She worked at a theater concession stand by age 14. She knew how to get by with very little.
Contreras moved to Immokalee in 1961 with her then-husband. She didn't finish high school, and most of her job experience was waiting tables. A need for bilingual teachers at a local educational facility earned Contreras a job and an education. She went on to also run a restaurant in town for 20 years.
She moved into her house on Indian River Street in 1999, and when Hurricane Wilma hit the region in 2005, it caused just as much or even more damage to her home as Irma would 12 years later.
"I've learned in this community that you have to help yourself," she said.
Contreras applied for FEMA post-Irma and received $2,900 in aid, but only $499 was to go to house repairs. The rest was for a long motel stay.
"What could I do with $499 to repair the house?" Contreras said. She needed more.
She appealed FEMA's determination letter and was given the go-ahead to use all the money for house repairs.
But it still wasn't enough. That's when the community stepped in. Groups like UMCOR, along with the Salvation Army, Rural Neighborhoods and the Mennonites Disaster Service, fixed up her home in the span of many months. The last repair — the installation of the tile floor — was completed in July.
Contreras and her family lived in the house while the repairs were being done.
"It was so hard," said Andreana Herrera, 21, Contrera's granddaughter-in-law. Her main priority at that time was making sure her daughter had everything she needed. She would be crawling soon, and the splintered plywood floors were too dangerous.
The bathroom was completely torn down and remodeled. Contreras received several donations from the community, including a new stainless steel fridge and stove. With money she saved, Contreras shopped at thrift stores for home decor like curtains and furniture.
While the past year hasn't been easy, Contreras said it has brought her family closer.
"We were all going through this together," she said.
"It was a long journey, but it was worth waiting for. We got everything God knew we needed.
"You just have to have faith and trust in God that he's going to come through."
Housing still an issue
It takes two to five years for a community to recover from a storm of Hurricane Irma's magnitude, said Aileen Castro, disaster case manager for the Salvation Army branch in Immokalee.
And housing is often the biggest issue.
In order to meet demand, Castro has worked in the low-income community since November, first case-managing for UMCOR and now Salvation Army, where she works alongside several other case workers. Since then, Salvation has closed nine cases, with roughly 53 still open.
In May, the Salvation Army started a case management program to identify families in need and connect them to federal and local aid.
Castro said the biggest problem plaguing many families a year after Irma is roof damage.
"Especially with it being the rainy, hurricane season," she said. Many houses in Immokalee still have blue tarps on their roofs.
Every day she sees families who need everything from minor repairs like new shingles to a complete rebuild of their house.
In total, Salvation Army and UMCOR have a roughly 69 open cases and 12 closed cases.
The Collier County Housing Authority is repairing 80 percent of its more than 500 homes in the affordable housing community, Farm Worker Village.
Oscar Hentschel, the authority's executive director, said the extent of the damage is loss of shingles. He said they applied to FEMA to help cover the portion not covered by insurance and are in the process of repairing homes occupied by low-income families and seasonal farm workers.
After Irma hit, the authority temporarily opened up its seasonal dormitory, Horizon Village, to around 20 families in need. Several of those families now live at Farm Worker Village.
And Hentschel said they plan to acquire additional properties to offer more affordable, durable housing for low-income families.
A community brought together by disaster
To better respond to the community's needs in the face of disaster, the Immokalee Unmet Needs Coalition was born almost immediately following the storm.
"Some people still don't know where to get services, so having the coalition here in Immokalee we're able to come in and see who's needs to be served and how we can stretch the dollar to serve all the community," said Ellie Ramirez, the coalition's coordinator.
The main role of the coalition is to open the lines of communication among local, state and national nonprofits and faith-based organizations, she said.
Each subcommittee is responsible for tasks like house repair, case management and supplying household items.
Aileen Castro, with the Salvation Army, is chair of the case management committee. If Salvation Army doesn't have the resources to help a family in need, Castro said, she refers them to another organization within the coalition.
The Rev. Frank Rincon is also part of the coalition, which meets biweekly. His church, Bethel International Ministries, works in partnership with the international Christian humanitarian organization World Vision to bring supplies to Immokalee.
Just weeks after the storm, the Immokalee native acquired a 3,700-square-foot warehouse on Commerce Avenue he called the Benison Center. Almost a year after his operation's inception, Rincon moved it to a 9,000-square-foot facility off Main Street. Supplies like toiletries, baby diapers, furniture and household items are regularly delivered by World Vision to the warehouse.
Rincon works directly with the coalition to identify families in need of supplies.
"The coalition is made up of relationships that were forged in stone as long as there is a need in Immokalee. It was all about the right people coming together at the right time," Rincon said.