EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. – Two months after Hurricane Irma's storm surge slammed through tiny Everglades City, the mountains of debris that lined the streets have been reduced to scattered piles and the occasional abandoned stove or refrigerator.
The community church is preparing for its first indoor service since the storm this Sunday and the mayor says more than 90 percent of the town's businesses should be open when tourist season picks up in the next two weeks. But some are still complaining about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which they say has been stingy with assistance since the Sept. 10 storm pushed a 9-foot wall of seawater into the 400-resident town tucked into the state's southwest, isolated on the Gulf of Mexico.
"Who?" Mayor Howie Grimm joked when asked about FEMA's response.
Kenny and Brittany Smallwood say FEMA rejected their assistance request after an 8-minute home inspection even though Irma tore a hole in their roof and dumped torrential rains inside, destroying much of their furniture and causing extensive damage. They say they were denied financial aid because one room remains livable.
They share it with their three young sons.
"Even the woman from FEMA told me that doesn't sound right," Kenny Smallwood said. They are appealing.
Joe Anderson, the FEMA representative overseeing Everglades City, said the agency's response was hindered because "we had so many disasters going on," including the massive flooding in Houston, Irma's damage throughout Florida and the wildfires out West, "but we were here."
"When you consider it's a small community, I think we have placed our resources as best as possible," Anderson said.
But residents interviewed this week said their story is about much more than FEMA. It's about coming together with outside help to get their town into reasonable shape.
Everglades City clusters around its historic two-story City Hall, a converted Southern-style courthouse built in 1926. It remains closed because of water damage, but its surroundings are cleaner and quieter than they were a week after the storm. Then, one parking lot was filled with pallets holding military-style meals ready-to-eat and another had been converted into a food bank. Chain saws and generators drowned out the birds.
Residents desperately dried pianos, clothing, photos, family Bibles and other heirlooms — even though many houses are elevated 2 or 3 feet (.6 to .9 meters) and water inside reached another 4 feet (1.2 meters) or higher. What couldn't be saved was thrown into 5-foot (1.5-meter) stacks that stretched 10 feet (3 meters) or more.
Trucks eventually removed those mountains, and seasonal residents are returning to discover what's salvageable and toss what's not.
Jimmy Wheeler moved back to his hometown from nearby Naples just before Irma hit. He had spent five months refurbishing his new house, "so I get to gut it again." He said the residents have come together, whether it's to move junk or help elders navigate the internet insurance paperwork.
"It's a small community, so we all touch each other. We will get it back together," said Wheeler, a 33-year-old property manager and fishing boat captain. He added that the catch has never been better.
"It's not perfect but it's never perfect," Mayor Grimm said. "That's what people like about us."
Irma's waters did not spare Everglades Community Church, which shares the town center. The nondenominational congregation saw its floors, pews and drywall ruined, but the intricate stained-glass windows that line the sanctuary went unscathed. People around the country have donated $85,000 toward the $150,000 cost of repairs, and a $50,000 state matching grant is coming. While much work remains, the sanctuary's floors have been replaced and a restaurant's plush chairs are lined up as makeshift pews. Parishioners finished the final touches for their first indoor service since Irma.
Pastor Bob Wallace said it's no coincidence he will be preaching Sunday about the Israelites going back into Solomon's Temple.
"I've always thought there needs to be an awe factor when you enter a house of worship. We had that and we are going to get it back," Wallace said.
A large truck backed into the parking lot of the nearby Chokoloskee Marina on Thursday, stuffed with new furniture donated by the nation's Churches of Christ, one of the last shipments aimed at helping about 200 local families that suffered damage. Right after the storm, Mormons from elsewhere in Florida helped people clean out their homes. Baptists ran the food bank. Other groups, religious and secular, chipped in.
But on this day, Pastor Lyle Asbill of the Naples Church of Christ and some of his members traveled 35 miles to unload living room sets. On earlier days, they had distributed bedrooms, appliances and water heaters. Asbill said the church wanted to help.
"They had an obvious need," Asbill said.