IRMA: Volunteers help pick up pieces in Bithlo after storm

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, September 12, 2017, 6:50 PM EDT

Tonya Watne, her husband, three kids and dogs left their home during Hurricane Irma and headed to a shelter. But when they returned, they came home to a disaster.

“I was kind of scared that the roof would get ripped off," said Watne's 10-year-old daughter, Chloe Calmes, on Tuesday.

Their street looked like a river, and they had no power. The family was most concerned about the large tree that crashed through their home.

“We saw the tree, and it was kind of scary,” Chloe said.

Then, out of nowhere this morning, Watne says they showed up: volunteers from churches in Avalon to Oviedo, helping the family with work, and surrounding them in a prayer circle in their front yard.

Dozens of volunteers from the University of Central Florida and churches pitched in, cleaning up the east Orange County town’s community area, dubbed Transformation Village.

“It’s the stress relief... It’s been very stressful. I don’t think about myself; it’s the kids," Watne said. “If everybody was like that, the world would be a better place,” Watne said.

“I do appreciate everything," said Watne's husband, Richard Calmes.

While the storm caused flooding and compromised wells and septic tanks — which most residents have — Timothy McKinney said that Irma simply exacerbated problems Bithlo already faces.

“This is the daily struggle in a community that doesn’t have adequate infrastructure," McKinney, who runs not-for-profit, United Global Outreach.

McKinney said that Bithlo has inadequate drainage, which compounds flooding and worsens water quality issues. Over the years, his organization has worked to cultivate a sense of community in Bithlo, by working directly with neighbors, setting up a free school and Transformation Village, and harnessing community support.

And as things in Bithlo return to status quo, McKinney said he and others are looking ahead.

“As a lifelong resident, I wanted to be part of the solution," he said.

For more information on United Global Outreach, go to their website.


Dozens of volunteers from the University of Central Florida and churches pitched in Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 to clean up Transformation Village in Bithlo. (Julie Gargotta, staff)