When he saw pictures of his post consumed by floodwaters from the nearby Peace River, American Legion Post 11 Commander Ron Jones was sick to his stomach.
It was September 2017, and Hurricane Irma had swollen the river on the west side of Arcadia, Fla., to record levels, flooding Post 11’s building and the park where it stood.
A year later, the post still stands, renovated and reopened, reflecting then-Post Adjutant Bob Grinis’ vow in Irma’s immediate aftermath: “I’m not going to let this place close. I refuse.”
Jones and Grinis, now the post's first vice commander, talked about Post 11’s renovation in early November, almost 14 months after Irma devastated parts of Florida and a little over two months after the post’s grand reopening celebration — and just days after Hurricane Michael ravaged parts of the Florida Panhandle.
“We are still coming back from Irma,” Grinis said, referring to the entire town of Arcadia. “We are still getting help from the federal government, there are still plans going on.
“It’s not something that just goes away overnight.”
Jones noted that Post 11 is one of the oldest Legion posts in the country. The street in front of the post, which is now American Legion Drive, was once the main highway into Arcadia before State Highway 70 was built.
“So coming into Arcadia, the first thing you saw was this American Legion building, with the American flag flying,” Jones said.
That history is why Post 11 members felt it was important to find a way to stay in the building.
Jones was in Georgia for an emergency situation there when Post 11 began to flood. The flooding also kept him from getting to his own home for a week. “My property became a lake,” he said.
Grinis was able to get into the building on Sept. 17, a week after Irma made landfall in the Keys and began roiling its way up the state.
“When we walked through the door, after we waded through three feet of water to get here, there was still about a foot of water inside the building. … It was a shock, it was very disheartening, really, to see all the damage, to see everything askew and whatnot, mementoes being ruined, furniture being gone, the kitchen messed up—yeah, it hurt,” Grinis said.
When the water receded enough, Jones, Grinis and others started removing damaged furniture, appliances, mementoes and other debris from the building.
“We put (the debris) across the street in the park. It was a mountain, let me tell you,” Jones said.
A crew from Miami volunteered to come up on weekends to first remove the waterlogged drywall then rough in the new drywall.
“These guys had this whole building stripped down in about a weekend. I pushed about 200 wheelbarrows if I pushed one, I tell you what, my back was shot,” Jones said. “But it was wonderful to have that help. They came back three separate weekends, and I brought my mobile home up, they stayed in my mobile home, we fed them and took care of them best we could, and they actually roughed in the drywall. So then we were able to hire in finish people to finish the drywall. A buddy of mine, a veteran, painted it for free. The crew from Miami gave us the paint, that helped us save some money. As we were doing our work, the money started coming in and we were able to buy stuff as we went along, we didn’t have to charge anything or run into our emergency money.”
“We had to go up four feet high on the drywall and we replaced every piece of drywall in the place, new insulation, new floors, we’re getting to the ceiling tiles. The entire kitchen was destroyed, the bathrooms were rebuilt. It was a major, major overhaul,” Grinis said.
Relief from The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF) helped that overhaul.
“That fund made it possible for us to immediately start to rebuild and to make things happen,” Grinis said. “Without that initial input, I think we would have been way behind schedule.”
Post 11 also received help from across the nation, with donations of money and supplies from the Legion Family.
“The American Legion Family, there’s a very strong bond,” Jones said. “I probably got 50 checks that were like $25 (each). And many of them put a little note in there, ‘We lost our post to a fire,’ ‘We lost our post to a hurricane’ or a tornado, little comments, ‘I wish I could come down there and help you.’ I wrote every one of those a thank-you letter, to every person that gave a dime, and then I also sent them an invitation to our grand-opening dinner.”
That grand-opening dinner on Aug. 17 not only gave the members of Post 11 a chance to show off their renovated building, but to sit back and consider how far the building had come since 2017’s flooding.
“We were all very happy (to reopen),” Jones said. “It brought me almost to tears when we were up there talking.”
“I made that statement, we’re not going to let it go down, we’re not going to let it close, and it was a personal thing,” Grinis said. “It was a tragedy; we were just in the process of starting to really get back together and start to build our membership again, and I didn’t want to see it go away. I was very concerned that it wouldn’t work. But we had a commander who jumped in there and did more than he really needed to do. The whole group, the whole community made sure this place stayed open.”
“I’m not a quitter. I never quit,” Jones said. “Bob’s not a quitter, he never quits. And we were not going to let this place go down.”