Florida family stands in front of their home.

A family in Florida begins rebuilding after Hurricane Irma

Alina and Carlos see their house as an act of kindness. Many acts, actually.

The first wave came from volunteers with Highlands County Habitat for Humanity who pitched in eight years ago to help frame walls and give the couple’s children something Carlos and Alina never had: roots.

Then, when Hurricane Irma soaked the kids’ pink and yellow bedrooms, some of those same volunteers returned to pitch in. “They were coming up and saying, ‘Do you remember me?’” Carlos says. “I told them, ‘Of course. You helped us build our home.’”

“I truly believe that our house was built out of love, by people who were here because they wanted to be here.”
— Alina, Habitat homeowner

Alina hadn’t forgotten them, either. She was touched that Habitat hadn’t forgotten that the kids, Adrianna and Adrian, now 12 and 10, struggle with severe asthma. The children have been staying with a relative because dampness can trigger an attack. Getting the house repaired means the family can be back together.

“I truly believe that our house was built out of love, by people who were here because they wanted to be here,” Alina says. “It continues to be built on love and care and a great sense of being kind.”

This same kindness can be found throughout Highlands County in central Florida. In the months since the storm, Highlands County Habitat has begun working with displaced families living with relatives or in motels or trailers who are interested in becoming Habitat homeowners. Habitat also is starting a critical home repair program.

When Hurricane Irma barreled through in September, it damaged some 13,000 homes. The county has since deemed 144 of those residences uninhabitable and estimated the overall home damage at $360 million. Almost one-fifth of the houses in Highlands County sustained roof damage during the hurricane. Many families also need to replace siding and drywall, which is what is being done at Carlos and Alina’s house.

The family’s white and olive home sits on a corner, surrounded by a picket fence that Carlos built and is proud survived Irma’s 140 mph winds. Growing up, Carlos, who spent time in foster care, used to walk by homes with picket fences. “I never stayed anywhere for more than a year, a year and a half,” he says. “I wanted to build a home for my family, a home with a picket fence.” Alina had never lived anywhere very long, either.

“To see that Habitat is still there for us is something I hold near to my heart.”
— Alina, Habitat homeowner

The couple’s children, however, only remember the love and security of this house. “This is the way we wanted our kids to grow up,” Alina says. “I am happy that they think this is normal.”

Hurricane Irma upended that normalcy, albeit briefly. Because of Carlos’ job as a shift manager at grocery store, the family decided to ride out the storm. When the hurricane hit, they questioned that decision. “I knew I was scared, but this was the first time I had ever seen Carlos scared,” Alina says.

The family could hear their neighbors’ roofs coming up. Their metal roof, the kind that tops Highlands County Habitat homes to better weather tough storms, held firm. However, as winds and rains battered the east side of the house where the kids’ bedrooms are, a panel of siding blew off and water flowed in through the foundation.

For hours, while Alina, her sister, mom and the kids huddled in the living room, Carlos mopped. “When we got to the midpoint of the storm, I just had to stop. I was tired and overwhelmed,” he says. He sandbagged the hallway to the part of the house taking in water.

Today, Carlos and Alina are among the first homeowners to benefit from Highlands County Habitat’s new repair program. “You become family in the process of building a home,” Alina says. “Habitat not only cared for us and helped us go through the process of becoming homeowners, but to see that they are still there for us, is something I hold near to my heart.”