In August of 2022, the Jacksonville Business Journal featured an article on MasterCraft Disaster Restoration’s involvement in helping rebuild a local homeless shelter, Port in the Storm. If you’re unfamiliar with Port in the Storm, it’s a not-for-profit homeless shelter in St. Augustine that houses and helps young adults ages 18-24 find a path to self-sufficiency. It’s sometimes the last chance to rescue and help young individuals who have fallen through the cracks before they go down the path of chronic homelessness, mental illness, or even suicide. Port in the Storm offers a safe refuge off the streets, a chance to learn or regain essential life skills, and caring, mentoring adults who provide hope, encouragement, and stability in guiding young individuals toward a brighter, more successful future.
However, in December 2021, Port in the Storm’s stability became at risk when it was suddenly flooded just a week before Christmas. We sat down with Judy Dembrowski, Executive Director of Port in the Storm, and the Vice President of Disaster Restoration, Leigh Johnson, to get their remembrances of the event.
JUDY: I remember it was on a Sunday evening, December 20th. We had a pretty full house of about a dozen kids who were all getting ready for Christmas. The tree was up, the place was decorated, and the kids had just finished making Gingerbread houses when suddenly, we started seeing this dark water rush across the facility floor. Raw sewage water from one of the restrooms began flooding the entire place. So, we quickly had to pick up and evacuate 12 kids and figure out where to relocate. Luckily, we could move into a nearby homeless shelter, St. Francis, which I also happened to manage. Since St. Francis is an adult shelter and we had to house the adults and kids separately, we moved the kids into the dining room for St. Francis, which is in its own building. The room is small and not the new, beautiful facility that the kids were accustomed to, with a kitchen, lounge area, nice dormitories, etc. Not ideal, but it served as safe, clean temporary housing.
As for the flooding back at Port in the Storm, we couldn’t get a plumber in until 9:00 am the following day since it was the Sunday night before Christmas. He arrived and determined it was a septic issue, and we had to get someone to come down from Jacksonville to fix it, which they did. Ultimately, the septic tank was pumped into the kids’ shelter for about 18 hours. But, wow. It destroyed everything because it also leaked over onto the administrative side.
We called in a remediation service, and they determined the flood water was Cat. 3 sewage water, so not only did we lose the walls and the floors, we lost anything it touched, like furniture. Some things were salvaged and sanitized, but most had to go in the trash. The flooding was about two feet deep, which is a lot, and throughout the whole building. We lost all the flooring and some of the drywall. The building was fairly new—we had had our grand opening just five years before.
So, in January, we called our friends at Mastercraft because they do this sort of disaster restoration work and are staunch supporters of our program and agency. Leigh, Chris, and their team came over and went to work. They connected with the original construction company and contractor of our building. They got a list of the vendors and products that were used so they could restore it to its original condition. They even advocated on our behalf with the vendors to get discount prices and rebates. They did a wonderful job. They even threw a big party at the end, which was nice. MasterCraft Disaster Restoration did the project at cost and then donated back fifty thousand dollars to Port in the Storm…they’re an extraordinary company. You don’t see many companies their size so invested in their community. They’ve also rebuilt our adult homeless shelter, St. Francis, a couple of times after the hurricanes. Chris and his team are amazing.
LEIGH: Sure, I can tell you all about Port in the Storm, I’m Leigh, and I run MasterCraft Disaster Restoration, a division of MasterCraft Builders Group. We get properties up-to-code after a disaster with the goal of restoring them to their original or better-than-original condition. Port in the Storm reached out to Chris Shee, President of MasterCraft, because of his involvement in the community—everyone in St. Johns County knows him—and then Chris reached out to me. From the day I walked into Port in the Storm after the flood and saw the kids’ shoes sitting on the windowsill, it broke my heart… to see what those kids were going through. I started crying and called Chris Shee, saying, “We have to help these people.” We did, which was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Thinking back, gingerbread houses were sitting there that kids had just finished. Christmas stockings on a counter that hadn’t been put up—they had just evacuated in such a hurry. All the drywall was cut out at the bottom throughout the building, and you see the kids’ stuff piled on top of bunk beds. And as I mentioned, when I saw these kids’ shoes on the windowsill, I thought, oh my gosh, this is probably the only pair of shoes they have—and it hits you. It was emotional to see how much their lives had been disrupted. I mean, for some of those kids, it may have been their first time celebrating Christmas.
It turns out a backed-up septic pump caused the flooding. As I mentioned, all the drywall was cut out—between two to four feet high—in the dormitory and administrative part… the entire buildi
ng. It was even cut out of their beautiful mural. All the flooring had to come out, all the insulation, all the drywall, and anything the sewer touched legally had to come out. We also wanted to ensure that we built everything back to today’s code, so we brought in the fire marshal for the city of St. Augustine before we even started reconstructing. We wanted to ensure we did everything properly since it was a commercial building, which differed from the residential buildings we typically rebuild. So, there’s specific egress stuff and all that kind of stuff. But first, we had to go in and pack up all the kids’ belonging that had been left behind—clothes, blankets, stuffed animals, etc. and put them into storage containers before the reconstruction could begin.
Fortunately, since Port in the Storm had just been remodeled after they purchased the property in 2018, I could go back to the original designer. She gave me all the specifications for the building, which was a lifesaver because everyone loved it just the way it was, and they wanted it back, exactly the way it was. So having those specs, all the way down to the tile design, really helped, and I gave those to my rep, whom I’ve worked with for 20-something years—and she’s amazing.
I may have mentioned this before, but Port in the Storm had this cool mural painted on the wall that they loved. Unfortunately, two feet of it got cut out at the bottom because it touched the sewer water, but they still wanted to salvage the mural. So, we got creative and decided to build cubbies underneath it for the kids to store their shoes and topped them with a handy bench. Voila!
Remember when I mentioned that a backed-up septic pump caused all the damage? There was a loophole in Port in the Storm’s insurance coverage, meaning they had no insurance for sewer backup. But we jumped in and started rebuilding anyway, insurance or not. So, I started calling our trade partners and explaining the situation, and the first person I called was Sherwin-Williams about paint, and they said we will give you the paint. Soon, I started getting all these generous donations from people wanting to help because of what had happened and Port in the Storm not having insurance coverage, etc.
I couldn’t believe how the community was stepping in and helping and giving back. It was amazing. It gives me chills to think about all the people who just opened their hearts and gave back to help in such a horrible situation. Chris Shee said, don’t tell them about all the donations; we’ll surprise them at the end. So, I had to keep it secret for six or seven months, but then at the end, we had a big party in August, a luncheon, and Chris surprised everyone at Port in the Storm when we gave them back a check for fifty thousand dollars. Part of it was simply MasterCraft and its employees giving back, and part of it was thanks to subcontractors and suppliers donating their time and materials to the project. As Chris said at the event, “We are a community builder. We love giving back to our area. We love helping those in need. We reached out to our trades (workers). They all came and wrapped their arms around this place, too.”
If you walk into Port in the Storm today, it looks the same as when they remodeled it in 2018, which was our goal because they wanted it back just the way it was. MasterCraft Disaster Restoration got involved in January, and we finished the project in August 2022. Considering we usually only do residential properties, it turned out great. And best of all, Port in the Storm does, too.
You can find out more about MasterCraft Disaster Restoration on their site: mcbgdisasterrestoration.com