Wearing gloves and protective masks, hundreds of volunteers ripped carpet already darkened by mold out of flooded Flagler Beach houses and helped residents pack or discard water-damaged belongings from homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Others — taking up the entire bottom floor at the Tortugas Florida Kitchen and Bar, which donated space for the volunteer effort — spent the Sept. 16-17 weekend helping residents apply for FEMA aid.
Still more organized donations of cleaning materials, plastic boxes for packing up residents’ belongings, and other supplies at the Wickline Center Park.
The volunteer #FlaglerStrong effort was organized on social media by a small circle of involved Flagler Beach residents — among them Heather Beaven, Flagler Beach City Commissioner Kim Carney and School Board member Colleen Conklin, who used Facebook posts to direct roving bands of volunteers to the homes of residents who needed help clearing their belongings out of damaged homes before mold took over.
Many were older residents who couldn’t drag their waterlogged furniture out of their houses on their own in the September heat: Sports teams from local high school got involved and did some of the heavy muscle work.
Resident Tracy Callahan and others collected clothing and bedding from mold-damaged homes and arranged to have it washed and returned to residents.
Others delivered food.
Residents expressed their gratitude for the help. “Irma, It’s true that we have never seen anything like her in recorded history. Flagler, I’ve never seen anything like you in my life,” resident A.J. Neste wrote in a public post on Facebook. “Thank you for all the friends that have helped. You have shown us what a true friend is. ... So many of us got flooded with water this week, but please join us in seeing how much more we have been flooded with love. Let’s keep it flowing.”
The effort helped about 150 households, Conklin said, and volunteers plan to follow up with people who’ve been aided, ensuring that their health isn’t suffering and that they’ve found safe housing and gotten any assistance needed to apply for aid.
“We’re kind of focused on those folks, and we’re hoping that the other organizations that are getting on board now will really spend a lot of time scanning the area and checking in on those we don’t know about and are not aware of,” she said. “So, canvassing neighborhoods, actually making face-to-face contact with individuals through the communities is going to be critical. At some point, the health department is going to have to get involved — sooner rather than later because the mold issue is reaching a toxic level if it wasn’t toxic already.”
Conklin has found one doctor willing to volunteer to do house calls on people whose homes were affected by the storm, and hopes for more medical volunteers.
Volunteers have compiled a database with information on which residents need medical follow-up and which need housing.
At the large cleanup push over the Sept. 16-17 weekend, Conklin was the most visible organizer, directing fellow volunteers and making sure residents in need were matched up with assistance. But she downplayed her own role in the effort.
“I don’t view that I did anything. I view all these people that responded to a cry for help as the heroes of our community — everyday people who just stepped up and saw a call for removing the wet carpet for an elderly woman, or moving wet furniture for a widow,” she said. “The community just stepped forward, and it was a beautiful thing to be a part of. And I will be forever grateful for the people who did that. But there are still things that need to be done. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t realize what’s happened five miles away from where they live.”
On the streets of barrier island Flagler Beach, she said, “It’s like a bomb went off. And then you drive over the bridge, and it’s hard to tell that anything has happened. It was an incredible experience to play a very small part. It was an honor to just be involved in any way.”
— Staff Writer Paige Wilson contributed to this story.