Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Relief Efforts Underway to Assist Victims of Avondale Apartments Flooding

08/19/2020 06:53PM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
Moments after Tropical Storm Isaias reached Chester County on Aug. 4, the breadth of its damage was as shocking as it was immediate.

The ravenous storm ripped through town after town, downing telephone wires, toppling trees and sending them across large highways and small roads, and causing massive flooding that left 400,000 county residents without power. The catastrophic mayhem was everywhere, closing businesses and sending homeowners into the catacombs of their homes to wait out the extent of a hurricane whose strength was still unknown.

Meanwhile, at the Avondale Apartments, the raging floodwaters had risen beyond the waists of the rescue teams who had arrived in motorized lifeboats. The water continued to slowly pulverize, pouring through the first-floor apartment windows, as residents scrambled to grab their children and every essential item they owned in search of dry ground. Some could not find their way out, and stood helpless, trapped inside as the water came through their windows.

That afternoon, Arlene Beltran went on a mission to gather up as many angels as she could find. She called her sister Karen, and Ana Aguilera and Gonzalo Cano and Maria E. Zavala and Ana Zavala, and by the time evening came, a consortium of community advocacy known as Hope through Housingfor Avondale Families had formed.

On Aug. 7, a second flash flooding swept its way through the apartment complex, but the damage had already cost the 28 families who lived on the apartment’s basement and first floor their home and nearly everything they owned.

In all, more than 70 residents – including some whose apartments were infected with mold -- had been robbed of adequate living conditions.

On Aug. 8, the residents received notice from the apartment management that they were to evacuate the complex by Aug. 10, and the basement and first-floor tenants were informed that they would not be allowed to return to their home for a minimum of 30 days.

Later that day, Maria E. Zavala launched a GoFundMe campaign, with a goal to raise $12,000 that would be evenly distributed among the affected families. After the second flooding, the fund’s goal had been raised to $15,000.

As of Aug. 17, one week after it began, Hope through Housing for Avondale Families has raised $15,149 and in the process, galvanized the support of individual donors, agencies and businesses.

The money raised will be disbursed based on level of need (high, medium, and low), prioritizing the residents on the basement level and the first floor. Families will be given Visa cards to use toward rebuilding their lives; some will use this toward the purchase of furniture, security deposits, replacing documentation, and immediate needs.

“A home is an extension of ones’ self and reflects who we are,” Maria wrote in announcing the GoFundMe campaign. “It is a place which is full of treasured memories, laughter, birthdays, family reunions...When you lose your home, you also lose a part of yourself, which is difficult to rebuild.”

As donations continue to rise, additional relief for these displaced families has come from several sources. The American Red Cross provided the families with free hotel rooms for the first week, and soon, support came from Kennett Area Community Service (KACS), who is currently providing hotel accommodations for 13 families, while the other 15 families have made other housing arrangements.

KACS will pay for these accommodations on a case by case basis -- depending on the circumstances -- with each family until they find housing.

“As a leading life-sustaining organization, KACS provides food and emergency assistance to residents in Southern Chester County’s Avon Grove, Kennett Consolidated, and Unionville-Chadds Ford school districts,” said KACS Executive Director Leah Reynolds. “Before the pandemic, KACS provided up to a seven-day supply of food to approximately 550 registered households -- approximately 900 children in those households -- each month.  

“Since March, the KACS Food Cupboard has served almost 9,000 individuals,” Reynolds added. “The Emergency Assistance Program at KACS has provided over $397,723 in rent, mortgage, utility, and other emergency payments to help those impacted by COVID-19’s devastating economic fallout.  

“KACS continues to work with individuals and families to both prevent homelessness and assist those who are currently experiencing homelessness. In just four months during the COVID19 crisis, KACS has re-housed 10 families into permanent housing.”

Donations of food and clothing

Assistance to these families hasn’t stopped at hotel accommodations. Food has been donated by Plaza AztecaPrimo HoagiesKaboburritos and RumpRoasters in Kennett Square, Twelves Grill & Café in West Grove and Katt and Mathy Farms in Kemblesville.  In addition, donations of clothing have come from St. Rocco Catholic Church and Mision Santa Maria in Avondale. Hope through Housing is also pursuing contributions from individuals and other businesses that will allow them to sponsor individual families affected by the flooding.

“Another awesome initiative was born out of this effort,” Maria said. “People purchasing gift cards from restaurants of their choice that go to these families are also supporting local businesses during these trying times.”  

For many of the residents of the Avondale Apartments, this most recent flooding is just the latest in an ongoing series of flood-related incidents that have not only affected them, but several residents in the Avondale Borough who live in the floodplain of the East branch of the White Clay Creek.

Unlike many of their immediate neighbors, however, those who live in the complex do not own renters’ insurance, which leaves them vulnerable in the case of severe flooding and not able to recover losses. For Maria E. Zavala and her sister Mayra, a Kennett Square Borough Council member, it’s a story often told. Like many of the Hope through Housing team, the Zavalas sisters grew up in a Kennett Square apartment complex that is very similar to the Avondale Apartments.

“Similar situations of flooding have happened across the years with landlords doing nothing to remediate the damage, while families lose everything in the blink of an eye,” Mayra said. “The expectations are that if you complain, it’s easier to put you on the street and find another family to fill your place, because there is such limited low-point housing available.

“Renters’ insurance is not a possibility for a lot of these families, whether it is their immigration status that prevents them from being able to enroll, or whether it is due to educational and cultural gaps. For them, replacing damaged items is not just a simple call to an insurance agency. Often, they find themselves at the end of their hotel stays with the decision of going back and facing the possibility of being flooded again in the future.”

Maria said that a few of the 28 displaced families affected by Hurricane Isaias have already made the decision to move to another state or live with other family members, while some are left with no other options but to return to the complex when they are allowed to.

“We know that these families find themselves in complete despair, having lost everything including vehicles, and even in some cases, their documentation,” she said. “Although these relief efforts being done are assisting them through this difficult period, they really are just the equivalent of a grain of salt. For many, this is just the beginning. They have major decisions to make. Do they go back and face the possibility of enduring another major flood again, or is this an opportunity to find better housing?

“Unfortunately, for many, being displaced from the town they have known and loved for years is devastating, because when that housing is not available there, they end up having to abandon the schools and support networks that they have benefitted from.”

Recently, the members of Hope through Housing dropped off dinner for many of the families who are living temporarily in hotels. Before arriving, Maria imagined that the visit would do nothing more than amplify the severity of the hurricane and its aftermath. Instead, she and her fellow organizers were uplifted by the faces of the many children who enjoyed pizza and played with donated toys.   

“A lot of these families are afraid to come forward with their stories, so they see us as their voice, so we are trying to use our voice in the best way possible to support them, not just in the short term but in the long term,” she said.

“When we decided to form this group, we did not know the obstacles we were going to face, but we found hidden reserves of courage and resistance that we did not know we had,” Maria wrote recently on the Hope for Housing Facebook page. “What we thought would be a sad day ended up becoming a day of hope and resilience. Out of their suffering, these families are emerging as more outspoken and becoming more engaged. “When we engage, things begin to change.”

To make your contribution to Hope through Housing for Avondale Families and to receive updates, visit the organization on Facebook, where the GoFundMe application can be accessed. The fund will be available to contribute to through Aug. 24.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].