It’s the perfect storm.
Two punishing hurricanes hit the Golden Isles in two consecutive years. And because so many in the area live below or near the poverty line, the damages done by storms take an enduring toll. The harm done requires costly repairs that are beyond the means of many.
Low-income families living on the coast, where hurricanes threaten to tear through the area annually, find themselves at risk with no control to stop what’s coming.
For more than a year, Martha Dismer has heard too many heartbreaking stories.
Dismer, an emergency disaster service case worker, was hired to serve the Golden Isles area through the Salvation Army’s Disaster Long Term Recovery program. She assists clients who have storm damages so they can have a safe place to live again.
“Many of them, it’s much more than just one construction job,” Dismer said.
Some may not realize, Dismer said, the living conditions that their fellow community members have had to endure since Hurricane Irma hit the area in September 2017. Due to roof leaks, some homes have mold so bad that it has caused serious health concerns for residents. Vermin have been able to get inside un-repaired openings into other homes and have taken up residence there long-term. Electricity has not been fully restored for some, forcing them to close off portions of their homes.
A number of barriers prevent these problems from being addressed, and one of the most significant challenges is the price tag. Even those with insurance have struggled to get the amount of money they need to fully fix their homes.
“I just think the need is extensive,” Dismer said. “I mean some people say to me ‘Really? This far out?’ And I say ‘You just don’t know.’”
Veda Lawrence now knows that she has to save for a storm.
Lawrence, 58, a longtime Brunswick resident, thought she had her affairs in order before Hurricane Irma. She had insurance on her home. She’d boarded up the windows and placed sandbags around the exterior. She evacuated for her safety.
When she returned, though, Lawrence found damages that would take more than a year to fully repair.
Hurricane Irma did significant harm to Lawrence’s roof and to one side of her home. Before repairs began, she said people could see directly into parts of her house from outside.
“All that was snatched out, so you could see through the whole house,” Lawrence said, pointing out a side of the house that had extensive damage. “You were able to see through the whole house.”
What came next was a battle with the insurance company, she said. Lawrence soon learned hard lessons about how to work with insurance providers.
“The insurance company didn’t support me like they should have,” she said. “I was really upset with the insurance company.”
She ultimately had to pay for many repairs out of pocket because her insurance did not cover the cost.
“That’s the first time I ever had to call to use my insurance,” Lawrence said.
She thought that because she had flood insurance and house insurance, she’d be fully taken care of in this sort of event. She learned that wasn’t the case.
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, I pay that each month, I’m good,’” Lawrence said. “But really, you’re not. And a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Too much damage
Dismer has seen how the cost of repairs can pile up quickly.
She helped a couple with limited financial resources who had been hit by both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017, and Dismer described the damage done to their home as looking like a nuclear bomb went off. Their trailer could not be rehabilitated, she said.
“It’s just too much work,” Dismer said. “But they’re living there. We provided them with some tarps, but they have all sorts of entrance ways because of that damage into their home, and they have raccoons living with them.”
For several of Dismer’s clients whose trailers were ruined by the storm, the cost of a new trailer, along with the cost of removing fallen trees and debris and transporting the trailer, begins to approach $50,000.
One woman received $3,000 from FEMA. She used that money to do makeshift repairs on her trailer. Her health while living there deteriorated significantly. Another woman had so much interior work to do on her house that she began to sleep on her front porch. She’s been doing so since Hurricane Irma.
Many people are suffering with health issues due to the living standards they’ve been subjected to because of hurricane damage on their homes.
One woman developed bloods clots in her lungs, said Capt. Billie Powell, who helps lead the local Salvation Army.
“Her doctor told her, ‘Your house is killing you. You’ve got to get out,’” Powell said.
Many also deal constantly with rain coming into their homes. One woman had to move out of her home because she couldn’t stand the rain inside the house anymore.
“It had been a year and a half, but she can’t stay in the house anymore because the mold is so bad,” Dismer said “And she’s called me up a couple of times crying, saying ‘It’s just pouring in my house.’”
Dismer offers a wide array of services through her role as local representative for the Salvation Army’s Disaster Long Term Recovery Program. She processes paperwork, assesses clients’ needs, determines the cost efficiency of work contract bids and more.
“I’ve learned a lot, but I feel very passionate,” she said. “This is great work, and when you go out in the community, and you see a year and a half out the situations that people are living in, you just you want to help them.”
Dismer had more than 50 active cases in March, and she expects many more are going without help as they try to address damages done by the storms.
The process to become a client in the Salvation Army program requires an intake application. People who qualify are those who have sustained losses due to Hurricane Irma. There is no income requirement to qualify.
Dismer works with an engineer from Lutheran Social Services who considers the work bids proposed and looks at the damage to the home, to help clients choose the best estimate. The Salvation Army office in Atlanta covers the costs.
“(The engineer) goes out and looks at everything because we want to make sure that it’s good quality work and that the owner, our client, is happy with the work,” Dismer said.
Lawrence was referred to Salvation Army so she could finally get her roof repaired.
She’d addressed many repairs herself by that point, but by the end of 2018, her roof remained un-repaired. Dismer helped her finally fix the roof.
Lawrence grew visibly excited describing the day that the workers arrived to begin repairing her roof.
“January 7, which was my birthday, I was coming from dinner, and this big truck was in front of my yard,” she recalled.
When the man driving the truck asked if he could leave roofing materials there so workers could return the next morning and begin renovations, Lawrence hardly believed him at first.
“I said ‘Are you sure it’s here?’” she said. “I was so excited … I just jumped up. I just hollered. I said, ‘Oh lord, that’s my birthday present.’”
The next day, she said it seemed like about 50 men were on top of her roof, fixing the damage. The work was basically completed by the end of the day.
Lawrence learned hard lessons, though, about saving up for the next storm. Insurance often will not provide as much support as one would hope, she said.
Some of Salvation Army’s clients have become tied up in legal battles with their insurance companies, Powell said.
“And in the meantime, these people are living in unsafe homes,” she said. “One lady had two children, and her electric system in the house is fried, and she says every day something else goes out.”
People are also dealing with mental health issues from the long-term stress. One client reported being diagnosed with PTSD, Dismer said.
Even clients with means have had their savings accounts wiped out by the extensive cost of repairs.
“In one of the subdivisions over on St. Simons near the golf course, 12-foot surge of water from the marsh,” Powell said. “It bust the sea wall over there, and the lady’s house totally flooded. She was an older lady. $125,000 she had to pay out of pocket just to get the sea wall replaced.”
For many, poverty plays a big role in the struggles they’re facing in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
“You don’t have a savings account. You don’t have family support either — minimal family support,” Dismer said.
Often, low-income residents have less insurance coverage.
“No homeowners, no contents, no flood,” Dismer said. “They just can’t afford it. It’s like the perfect storm. You’re on the coast, and you’ve got this huge population of poor people.”
Many are living in unsafe structural situations that make them vulnerable, and some have become homeless. Dismer met a woman whose trailer was demolished, and her health living inside the barely livable home declined sharply. Her doctor told her she had to move out.
“Since October, she’s been homeless. And she’s a handicap woman,” Dismer said. “And she just moves around constantly. And I think she was living in her car for a period of time.”
Many have no transportation and therefore have little access to support resources.
“There’s this one couple that the home is devastated,” Dismer said. “The possums are staying with them. They don’t have a working vehicle right now, so I was driving them around to look.”
Dismer believes there are many more people in this area who have damages and are not receiving assistance, like that provided by the Salvation Army. McIntosh County residents likely are dealing with extensive damages that have not been assessed by Salvation Army workers. That community is more low-income on average, and few have been in touch with Dismer for the long-term recovery program.
“We know we’ll never reach everybody,” Dismer said. “We just can’t with the resources we have. But we are real clear that there’s widespread damage."
Those seeking assistance from the Salvation Army or hoping to support the nonprofit’s work can contact Dismer at Martha.Dismer@uss.salvationarmy.org.