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About 200 people a day are coming to the Rural Heritage Center for supplies, meals, showers, laundry services or, sometimes, a shoulder to cry on.
“A lot of people are coming in shell shocked, with tears in their eyes, wondering: ‘What am I going to do, what am I going to do next?’ We just listen, encourage them and try to help them out,” Rural Heritage Center’s board vice president Joy Recicar said. “The water isn’t going down yet for many of them. Some still have 4 feet of water in their homes.”
The Center has served as a resource center primarily for the Mullet Lake, Lake Harney, Fort Lane and Osceola areas in and around Geneva. Seminole County District 2 Commissioner Jay Zembower said about 130 households have been severely affected in the Geneva area.
Recicar said organizations keep bringing donations and supplies. She said there are novelties, such as the cleaning supplies recently donated by the Salvation Army, but bottled water, tarps and fresh meals from the American Red Cross have been staples that locals have depended on.
Lake Harney crested on Sunday night at 12 feet and was down to 11 feet on Wednesday. Lake Monroe crested on Monday. Recicar said the RHC is shifting its focus from distributing physical donations to monetary donations as more people need assistance getting back into their homes or finding new housing.
“The people whose houses are destroyed, it’s going to take months. It’s such an unexpected situation. For all the flooding they’ve seen, it’s never been this bad,” Recicar said.
Donations to RHC are being accepted here.
Cindy Decker of Lake Harney Woods woke up to water lapping at her front door on Sept. 29. There’s no standing water in her house but it infiltrated the foundation and ruined her floors. She said many of her neighbors have it a lot worse than her.
Scott McElroy, who owns wedding and event venue Horsepower Ranch in Geneva, opened his 22 acre property as a donation site where people could drop off and pick up items as needed. Last Wednesday he shut down donations when he realized that items kept pouring in but they were not moving out as quickly.
“I noticed a man there with his daughter who was picking up toys. He told her to put them back and I said, ‘No, she can have them. It’s OK.’
That’s when the man told him that they were staying in a hotel and they didn’t have much space. He said he owns his own business where he relies on his truck and tools, which were all destroyed in the flood.
“That’s when a light came on,” McElroy said. “What they need now is a place to stay. And after the water recedes, they’re going to need people to help with the clean up and rebuild.”
McElroy also runs a nonprofit called Second Chance Foundation, which at first only saved horses from being destroyed but later began helping people in dire situations, including domestic abuse and medical emergencies.
McElroy said he’s working to assemble teams of volunteers to help Lake Harney Woods and Geneva property owners clean up and rebuild.
He also said that monetary donations are most needed and is accepting donations through a GoFundMe account for Hurricane Ian victims here.
A Lake Harney lifeline
On Sunday, McElroy coordinated an operation that delivered an 18-wheeler-truck’s worth of supplies, which were donated by the Cajun Navy Relief and Rescue, to Lake Harney Woods via boat.
With flooding from Lake Harney, the St. Johns River is currently flowing over a large chunk of S.R. 46, cutting off the community’s main access to civilization.
In four trips, everything from diapers to dog food was shipped from one dry side of S.R. 46 to the other. Decker said she and about 20 neighbors waited anxiously for the delivery.
Her 12- and 17-year-old daughters, and most of the children in Lake Harney Woods, have not been able to go to school.
“It’s a hurricane party that won’t end,” Decker said with a laugh. “These girls are going stir crazy. There’s nothing to do out here. The kids out here are just bored to tears.”
Only a few people in the community have large enough vehicles that can traverse the deep water on S.R. 46. John Andrews, Brandon Simmons and Danny Selph convinced the Florida Highway Patrol to let them ferry people’s vehicles to the other end of S.R. 46 and then take turns ferrying people to and from their vehicles on a daily basis so they can get to work. Andrews said they take shifts during the week and then they all pitch in on the weekends.
“It’s what you do,” he said of donating his time.
Some people also kayak to their vehicles.
The trash in the Lake Harney Woods area has not been collected since before the storm hit. Decker said they were told that the trucks weigh too much and could collapse the roads if they traversed it. Volusia County officials said they were able to provide a dumpster for residents’ trash in the meantime.
“Solid waste pickup will resume as soon as the flooding recedes and Morgan Alderman Road is passable,” Volusia County spokesperson Kevin Captain said.
Switch to Seminole
The line between Seminole County and Volusia County slices through the center of Lake Harney. Residents are so far from the civilization in Volusia County that some of their government services are provided by Seminole, including schools and first responders. Decker said the current crisis in Lake Harney Woods has revived a desire among some neighbors to seek annexation from Volusia County into Seminole County.
In the 26 years that she’s called Lake Harney Woods home, Decker said she’s never seen the community flood like it did in the days following Hurricane Ian, which dumped nearly 2 feet of rainfall on the area. She said Volusia County officials sent a pallet of water, a pallet of dog food and a pallet of military ration meals to the community and said they would not send more but offered to help residents evacuate if they chose to do so.
“We have livestock out here. We can’t just leave them. There are elderly people here, people who are sick,” she said, adding that some people have had to keep their livestock on their porches or in their homes to keep them safe from the rising water.
Captain said evacuation has been considered by some residents as the flooding situation lingers.
“Because the St. Johns is known as a lazy river, this water might be around for a while,” he said.
Decker said residents have had to do a lot of things that are typically expected of government officials, such as repair roads. She said a group of neighbors installed rebar and PVC pipe along the sides of severely flooded Morgan Alderman Road so that people can see where the road is.
“If people drive off the road, they’ll sink and drown. We won’t know they’re there,” she said.
Andrews said neighbors let others know through Facebook and Nextdoor when they’re going to be ferried out and ask if anyone needs any supplies.
“We’re not depending on Volusia County for anything,” he said.
She said there will be major infrastructure work needed after the water recedes, including road, electrical and Internet repairs, and she’s not confident that Volusia County will step up.
“We’ve been discussing wanting to get annexed,” she said. “Once we get through this, I’m sure we’ll all come together and make a fight for it.”
The new FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Seminole County is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week at Seminole State College, 100 Weldon Blvd. in Sanford. The center can help folks affected by the storm apply for federal aid, disaster loans, update their existing applications and learn about available resources.
Folks can also call 1-800-61-FEMA or visit FEMA.gov.
County residents who experienced damage from the storm are encouraged to fill out a FEMA form. Find the form here.
The Rural Heritage Center is offering supplies, such as water, tarps and fresh meals. It’s located at 101 E. Main St. in Geneva. For more information, call 407-792-0758 or click here.