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Group lends a hand and hammers

Members of East Lake United Methodist Church come together to repair and rebuild Florida homes ravaged by hurricanes.

By SHEELA RAMAN
Published September 25, 2006


Sawdust covers the unfinished floor of Yashika Hall's home. Countertops sag and threaten to collapse.

A year's worth of mold has turned her roof insulation from pink to sooty black, the color of diseased lungs.

Hall, 29, of Moore Haven, has asthma, which has become intolerable since Hurricane Wilma hit last year, leaving her double-wide mobile home in shambles. Many say Hall's home should be condemned, but she still lives there with her 7-year-old son, Jahari Braham.

In the towns of Moore Haven and Clewiston, along Lake Okeechobee's southwest shore, there are many others like Hall. The storm destroyed their homes a year ago, but they haven't been able to move out or rebuild. Many are single mothers or agricultural workers in the sugar cane industry who cannot afford home insurance.

Over the weekend, nine members of East Lake United Methodist Church went there to help. By caravan, they drove down Friday night, slept at a church in Clewiston and got up the next morning to go to work.

Saturday morning, retired preacher Gene Watson stood on a stool in Hall's home, sawdust coating the sparse white hairs on his head.

Watson, 67, wore a work belt full of tools, and whirred a circular saw across a ceiling beam. The beam hung lower on one side than the other. Sweat poured down Watson's face as he tried to level it. In spite of his trims, the beam stayed crooked.

"I have no clue how to even begin fixing that," said Renee Margott, 44, volunteer coordinator for Community Rebuilding Ecumenical Workforce, the Clewiston organization that has led relief efforts in the area since January. Margott oversees the work of volunteer groups such as Watson's.

CREW used the Internet to recruit the East Lake church group, as well as other volunteers from across the country, to help fix local homes. CREW's four members research who needs the most help before sending out volunteer teams. They check clients' payroll stubs and how much money they have already received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They have finished work on 150 cases, but have 640 still open, said director Trish McAdams.

Thirty of those homes need to be rebuilt completely, 300 need new roofs and the rest need other structural repairs.

"But there are more cases out there," McAdams said. "You can be sure of it."

Hall makes about $150 per week as a substitute teacher, if she can get work, McAdams said. After Wilma hit, Hall's roof was completely gone. FEMA gave Hall $4,100 for a new roof, but the roofing company she hired pocketed the money and backed out of the deal at the last minute, McAdams said. Slowly, the mold grew and the ceiling crumbled.

A volunteer group hired by CREW put in a roof for Hall in May, but it has been rare for CREW to get volunteers qualified to do such major repairs. Most of the volunteers are church groups like Watson's, a few guys who are handy around the house, McAdams said.

East Lake United Methodist has been to Hall's home twice, and this is the fourth time they've made the three-hour, 15-minute trip to Moore Haven and Clewiston. When they visited Hall's home in late August, they removed the moldy insulation.

On Saturday, they put a new drywall ceiling over the new insulation, tore down and re-drywalled the walls, spackled and repaired electrical outlets.

"We know this house is no good," Watson said. "But we can make it livable for her."

Art Worth, 67, of Palm Harbor heaved weighty pieces of wallboard up against Hall's walls.

"I'm a management consultant, but my avocation is cabinet-building," Worth said.

Gary Stephan, 45, and Jim Boyles, 46, labored over Hall's electrical outlets, moving wires around.

"I'm at a desk all day long," said Stephan, a computer programmer who wore camouflage pants and knelt on the splintery floor to work. "Sometimes I just need to do something manual."

Strolling around and snapping photos was Art Andersen, 87, the group's cheerleader.

Since he moved to Clearwater nine months ago, he has documented East Lake United Methodist's missions in Arcadia and in Clewiston. But he said he never was cut out for hard labor.

"You gotta saw wood with a hammer, right?" he said jokingly.

There is constant banter as the team works.

"Hey Art, can you take these out in the sun to dry?" asks Karen Geraci, 46, the only woman from the church to go on this trip. She holds two small plastic tools she has just washed.

"I don't know. It looks pretty heavy," Worth jokes. "You think I can handle it?"

Geraci accompanies the team to clean up and keep supplies in order so the guys can work continuously, she said.

After the East Lake team finished at Hall's house, it still looked a mess. Clothes strewn on chairs were coated in thick dust. So were Hall's kitchen supplies. The floors were unfinished. But at least she now has solid walls and a ceiling, and will probably "breathe a little easier," McAdams said.

The East Lake group lunched quickly on pizza at a Moore Haven deli, then drove their trailer full of supplies to 413 E El Paso Road in Clewiston, where Maria Ruiz Granados, 55, and her son, Jose Ruiz, 17, who uses a wheelchair, waited on their porch.

CREW has made several attempts to fix the roof of their single-wide mobile home, but still there are leaks.

The team carried ladders to the roof. But after climbing up, they realized the roof cement they had brought was of too low a grade. Another volunteer group had already made some repairs with higher grade roof cement, so it made no sense to continue repairs with a lower grade, they agreed. They checked a local hardware store, but at noon on Saturday, it was closed.

Watson still wanted to work, but his team members had to convince him otherwise.

Eyebrows furrowed, he finally hefted two ladders in his arms and carried them back to the trailer.

"These guys don't know how to do roofs," Margott said. "We really need people who know how to do that."

CREW also is desperate for plumbers and electricians who have a Florida license, McAdams said.

"We can raise a house, but nobody can move in unless a Florida plumber and electrician come in," she said.

But as she and Margott waved goodbye to the East Lake team, they begged them to return.

"You're comin' back eight more times, right?" Margott said.

At least two more times this year, they answered.