John Madsen was the first one to see American Legion Post 135 the morning after Hurricane Irma tore through last September.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Madsen, a Sons of The American Legion member who estimated that 8 to 10 inches of water inundated the building. “We had to wait until the power came back on. But by that time, it was too late — the mold had set in.”
The flooding was severe because the road that sits outside the post is elevated, which created a flow of water directly feeding into the post.
“It’s upsetting but I am optimistic,” said Madsen, the post’s kitchen and bar manager. “We’ll get reopened. We have to get reopened. The community needs us. The veterans need us. We can’t think about ourselves. We have to think about the community and the veterans that we take care of. And that’s the main thing. I could go find another job. But I would rather stay here and help the veterans in this community.
“It’s my job to give back to all the other veterans who have served.”
Post 135 Adjutant Michael “Mickey” Schuh has taken the lead role in working to get the post re-opened. It’s been a long process, from ripping out the damaged materials to getting approval from the local government to securing funds to cover costs.
The post is stripped down to its bare essentials. The carpeting is gone. The interior walls will have to be redone. Storage pods contain the few items that were salvageable.
Schuh estimates that the total cost will be $350,000 to $400,000 for everything from the actual repairs to the mold remediation to the storage pods rental to the new air conditioning unit. Insurance will cover $225,000. “We’re pretty far behind,” Schuh said.
The post has received support locally, around the state and nationwide, including a $25,000 grant from the Department of Florida. “That was really a surprise,” Schuh said. “Department Commander Steve Shuga and District Commander Mike Raymond came down and told us they had a surprise for us. We were all ready for a $5,000 grant. They came up with $25,000. That was a big shot in the arm, it got us feeling a lot better.”
Raymond says Post 135 was the worst hit in his 13th District. “We were flabbergasted at the amount of damage that this post took,” said Raymond, who visited the post about a week after Irma.
Shuga tipped off Raymond about the surprise grant.
“Commander Shuga got to see it up close and I guess it really tugged at his heart,” Raymond said. “He’s been to other posts but this he felt is where it was needed. And when I found out, I couldn’t hold back the tears. When Commander Shuga handed them the check, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building. They deserve it. They have been doing all the work. They have been here every day.”
The post also received a $5,000 American Legion National Emergency Fund (NEF) grant. Two other posts have donated $2,000 apiece. “Everybody has been really supportive. We’ve had a lot of assistance,” Schuh said.
NEF provides immediate grants to American Legion members and posts that have been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, NEF distributed thousands of dollars to posts and individuals. Donate to NEF here.
Nearly six months after the hurricanes, Post 135 and others are still working through various challenges to reopen. Meanwhile, others like Post 81 in Melbourne received significantly less damage and are back to serving their communities.
In the 1950s, the Army donated the post building, which the Army Air Corps used as a hangar during World War II. Post 135 uses it for various occasions and fundraisers, especially during this time of the year. More than 100 people regularly show up for special events.
“This is our season,” Schuh said. “This is our time to make the money to get through the summer months. Our activities double during this season. We have dinners on Friday nights. Dinners on Saturday nights. Dances. We weren’t able to have the Christmas party for the kids. We weren’t able to have Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving. Or our Valentine’s Day dinner-dance. They couldn’t go anywhere else because they are in their 70s and 80s and nobody else plays that music that they like to dance to.”
Kateri Sparks, president of Auxiliary Unit 135, was devastated when she first saw the damaged post.
“I walked in the building and I cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the damage. There was water, it was moldy, it was so hot. It was heartbreaking. This is home for us.”
Sparks said the unit has agreed to suspend its other activities in order to focus its support efforts on the post and veterans whose lives have been turned upside down by Irma. Unit 135, for example, is supporting a female veteran who lost her job last year, as well as helping the post pay its ongoing bills.
Even amid the slow recovery, post members are still involved in some community activities. They presented the colors during the city’s downtown ceremony for Veterans Day, and will also participate in the Memorial Day commemorations.
While the post navigates the hurdles in reopening, no one is entirely sure when it will be active again. Maybe June, they say. Schuh remains determined. “I’m an old Marine. You can’t give up your post.”
Sparks is eager to celebrate Post 135’s return to its community.
“Oh my goodness, we will do something tremendous and with grateful hearts because people have been so kind and so supportive,” she said.