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Church volunteers from Sonora help Hurricane Irma victims in Florida


A group from Calvary Chapel Sonora in Soulsbyville are in Naples, Florida, this week helping victims in a region devastated last month by Hurricane Irma.

“We’ve been working in areas where people are not allowed to move back in yet because there’s so much damage,” Glenn Woodbury, of Sonora, said Thursday in a phone interview.

Photos show the Sonora volunteers working in low-lying areas with standing water, near mobile homes, manufactured homes and solid foundation homes.

“We are seeing homes that have been flooded as high as 3 and 4 feet into the home,” Woodbury said. “We tarp their roofs if they’re leaking. There’s a lot of roof damage on these homes.”

In early September, Hurricane Irma caused up to $35 billion in insured and uninsured losses in Florida alone, and up to $50 billion in losses including island nations and territories in the Caribbean, according to the multinational catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

Irma killed more than 75 Floridians, and the storm’s death toll was more than 130 including Caribbean casualties. The storm formed Aug. 30 and dissipated Sept. 16, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean next, devastating Puerto Rico and other island nations and territories.

‘These folks love Jesus’

Woodbury is one of 10 adult volunteers from Calvary Chapel Sonora in Naples working with the faith-based nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse. Calvary Chapel Sonora is part of a sisterhood of churches, Justin Flores, assistant pastor at the Soulsbyville church, said Thursday.

“These folks love Jesus, and they want to be his hand and feet and help people out in need, whether it’s in our community or anywhere else,” Flores said in a phone interview. “They have hearts of compassion.”

Hurricane Irma slammed Naples, which lies on the southwest Gulf Coast of Florida, about even with Fort Lauderdale, on the Atlantic Coast side of the Sunshine State. According to The Naples Daily News, Irma rolled through the Everglades and the rest of Collier County on Sept. 10.

Many people decided to stay and ride out the storm, which was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane with winds up to 155 miles per hour or greater before it made landfall in Cuba. There were mandatory evacuations for some towns, including Everglades City and Chokoloskee.

Thousands of people flocked to Collier County hurricane shelters as stores ran out of water, food and fuel, including 5,300 evacuees at Germain Arena between Naples and Fort Myers.

Collier County nursing homes were evacuated ahead of the storm. About three-fourths of the county’s Florida Power & Light customers — more than 156,000 households and businesses — lost power during Irma. After the storm, hundreds of residents flocked to a FEMA assistance center in East Naples.

Retirees on fixed incomes

This week the volunteers from Sonora are working in communities with a lot of retired people on fixed incomes, Woodbury said. He and the Calvary Chapel Sonora people have been in Naples since Sunday this week. They plan to fly back to California and be back in the Mother Lode by Saturday.

In flooded homes in Naples, a lot of work is focused on fighting mold, Woodbury said.

“Where the homes flooded up to 4 feet deep, there’s quite a bit of mold damage,” Woodbury said. “We remove sheetrock and insulation up to a certain point where the mold reaches. We have to take all their belongings out, all the furniture, all the appliances. We leave the house ready for a sheetrock crew to come in and put in new sheetrock and insulation.”

Woodbury said this is the first time that Calvary Chapel Sonora people have worked with Samaritan’s Purse as far as he knows.

“At first we responded to see if they need help in Texas with Hurricane Harvey,” Woodbury said. “Then we heard about Florida and the damage was really widespread. They really need the help out here. So many homes are damaged or destroyed, so many people are displaced. It’s a really difficult situation for a lot of people here.”

It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you’re in in Naples, Woodbury said. On every street there are piles and piles of debris up and down both sides of the street. The city and the county can’t keep up with storm debris removal. There are traffic signs and traffic signals that are still down. There are neighborhoods that are still flooded with standing water in the streets.

“I haven’t seen any gators yet,” Woodbury said Thursday. “Seen a lot of egrets, and I’m watching an osprey catch a fish right now. I saw a deer in downtown Naples, it was probably displaced. We saved a couple turtles left behind in an aquarium by people who had to evacuate. The whole house was flooded. We put the turtles in a local pond.”

‘Too much damage … it’s unsafe’

Many people in Naples are in “flat disarray,” Woodbury said. They’re displaced, they don’t know where they’re going to live if they can’t get their homes fixed. Some of the homes in a neighborhood he worked in on Tuesday have been condemned.

“There’s too much damage,” Woodbury said. “It’s unsafe.”

Flores, the assistant pastor with Calvary Chapel Sonora, said there are a couple members of the congregation who are still planning to go to Houston with Samaritan’s Purse to help out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Flores said the Calvary Chapel Sonora volunteers with Woodbury are Mike Kagay, Bob and Trish Wilson, Charlie Kimmel, Lane Wettengel, Linda Tolbert, Lilly Stalzer, and Dale and Leahanna McMillan.

Samaritan’s Purse is billed as a nondenominational, evangelical Christian, tax-exempt charity since 1970. The organization's president is Franklin Graham, son of the Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

A Samaritan's Purse website this week has an update on Irma relief efforts that states, “We’re at work in Naples and the Keys, and have completed deployments in Apopka and Ft. Myers. More than 1,500 people have volunteered through Samaritan’s Purse. We’ve already assisted more than 300 homeowners across our four locations. Praise God that 38 people have repented and turned to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.