Service members and families, ordered to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma, line up outside of NMCRS Jacksonville to receive emergency financial assistance for gas, food, and temporary lodging.

Before the Storm

August 2017, on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, a second category IV hurricane, Irma, seemed to be headed toward Jacksonville, Florida. NMCRS Jacksonville sprang into action. They began issuing $300 debit cards to single service members and $600 debit cards to families needing to seek safety inland.

“We ran out of chairs,” recalled NMCRS Jacksonville director, Monika Woods. “It was standing room only and the line continued outside. There were service members, retirees, spouses, and young children – people of all ages and stages of life.”

NMCRS volunteers stayed on the job. “We didn’t turn anyone away,” said Woods. More than 450 clients received evacuation assistance from NMCRS Jacksonville before Hurricane Irma reached the area.

NMCRS volunteers helped in other ways. “Because two squadrons were deployed, there were many young spouses with young kids,” Woods explained. “Hotels were booked as far north as Atlanta – a five-hour drive from Jacksonville. We knew they shouldn’t drive off without knowing where they could stay.

We helped them find lodging, gave them money for food, gas, and hotels, and sent them off to seek safety.”

The scene was similar in Kings Bay, Georgia. “Many young military families live paycheck to paycheck,” said NMCRS Kings Bay director, Megan O’Connell. “They don’t have extra funds to get in their car and drive off not knowing how far they’ll be driving, how much gas they’ll need, or how many nights they’ll need to pay for a hotel.” NMCRS Kings Bay helped more than 400 clients with emergency funds to evacuate.

After the Storm

Even after Hurricane Irma passed over Kings Bay, it took a while before people could return to their homes. When the base re-opened a week later, NMCRS Kings Bay volunteers set up at the Fleet and Family Services Center as part of the Emergency Family Assistance Center (EFAC) team working with many other government and nonprofit entities assisting service members and families.

O’Connell remembers a retired chief petty officer who walked into the EFAC carrying a laundry basket. “‘Everything I own is in this laundry basket,’ he said. He’d lost everything else.”

NMCRS volunteers worked tirelessly to meet immediate needs.

“We provided commissary gift cards for food and essential items. It was hard work, but those in need were grateful,” O’Connell said. NMCRS Kings Bay provided $239,000 in interest-free loans and grants for Sea Service families to recover after Hurricane Irma.

Monika Woods recalls another Navy family whose entire home was flooded. “They lost practically everything they owned and were in temporary housing for four months while their home was refurbished. It was difficult to watch families who had left their homes in lifeboats, leaving everything behind, then returning to devastation, followed by weeks of waiting for an insurance adjuster to come, and finally waiting even longer to be reimbursed so they could begin to rebuild their lives.”

Service members and families from NAS Key West, which remained closed for three weeks, were also in need. So Woods and one of her volunteers flew to Key West and set up shop providing emergency financial assistance to returning service members and families under difficult conditions. “We stayed focused on talking to each client and helping them get the funds they needed to put their lives back together.”

Initially, NAS Corpus Christi wasn’t expecting to evacuate, so NMCRS emergency assistance wasn’t activated. Eventually, personnel and families were evacuated to Fort Worth, as were those from NAS Kingsville. As soon as Hurricane Harvey passed, NMCRS San Antonio director, Angela Botkin, loaded water and supplies into her car and drove to Corpus Christi to provide emergency financial assistance.

The extent of evacuations, relocations, and widespread damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas were unusual, especially for cities located hundreds of miles inland. After Hurricane Harvey, NMCRS Fort Worth director, Sharon Zacharias traveled to Houston to provide assistance to recruiters assigned to Marine Recruiting Station Houston. “The financial need was much more extensive than what we typically see,” said Zacharias.

“Their cars had been swept away and their homes extensively damaged. We put them up in hotels, gave them funds for essential items and food, and connected them with FEMA.”

“I remember a young Marine spouse who was expecting her first baby. Their home had been flooded and was full of mildew and fungus. They were living in the house because their landlord insisted they continue to pay rent since the house still had electricity, but she was concerned about staying there, breathing that air, and how it would affect her baby,” said Zacharias. “We referred her to legal assistance for help.”

In addition to helping service members after Hurricane Maria, NMCRS also helped service members stationed nationwide. “We received many requests from service members whose families lived in Puerto Rico,” said Winnie Ursini, NMCRS Casework Manager.

“Those families weren’t prepared for the aftermath of Maria which included weeks without electricity and water. We helped families relocate to the U.S. and provided funds for basic furniture, household items, food, and clothing.”

Lessons Learned

“We learned it’s very important to be prepared” was the resounding response from everyone we asked. And, because of you, NMCRS is prepared! Our employees and volunteers are well-trained in disaster assistance, passionate about helping Sea Service families, and committed to serving when and where they are needed.

The Society’s budget counseling and money management education and workshops help Sailors and Marines navigate the various stages of life and careers. And your donations help Sea Service members and their families evacuate, protect their families, and face the unexpected challenges of fires, floods, and hurricanes.

 

By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso

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