It has been nine months since Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, and yet some Alachua County residents are still picking up the pieces of its devastation.
For the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, that devastation takes the form of fallen trees and branches littering the graves there, some of which date as far back as 1836, according to Roberta Lopez, who is attempting to restore the cemetery.
Hunched over, Lopez on Monday morning tore weeds and roots off her grandfather’s tombstone. His grave, there since 1909, is dirty and overgrown, but still accessible and his tombstone still readable.
A few dozen yards behind her, however, were graves covered in tree limbs, shrubbery and a few fallen trees. Lopez said that since Hurricane Irma, she finds it too dangerous to trek into this overgrown area for fear of hazardous debris still hanging in the canopy that could — at any minute — fall on her head.
“This is the problem we’ve had: We can’t keep it clean because the limbs keep falling, and from Hurricane Irma, it brought down a mess,” she said. “If you think this is really a mess now, you should have seen it after Irma. It was terrible.”
Volunteers from Keep Alachua County Beautiful, led by director Gina Hawkins, began helping Lopez in her restoration efforts. Thanks to a $20,000 grant from Keep America Beautiful, KACB will offer professional assistance to multiple cemeteries in need of help after Irma, including Evergreen Cemetery and Stark-Nelson Cemetery, Hawkins said.
She said that KACB’s number one priority in the restoration of Lopez’s cemetery, located in Archer, is to make it safe by removing dead trees and clearing some of the canopy of dangerous branches.
“There are people basically deprived of visiting their loved ones’ grave sites because there are dead trees in the way that are falling down,” she said. “People can’t walk through under yonder tree without worrying if it’s going to fall on them.”
On Monday, Hawkins and a handful of volunteers scouted the area, marking graves along the way to make sure that larger vehicles will be able to get to the problem area of the cemetery without damaging any tombstones.
She said that the main function of the grant money is to hire tree surgeons to come in and take care of the trees, a task she said is too technical and dangerous for her volunteers.
The hope is to get the property to the point where Lopez will be able to maintain the cemetery more easily, because as it stands now, the debris has made it so that Lopez can only access half the cemetery. While Hawkins’s goal for the cemetery is more short term, Lopez is looking toward what will happen after Keep Alachua County Beautiful is finshed.
“This is a project that is continuous. You cannot just clean a day and forget about it and say ‘In five years I’m going to go out and clean some more.’ You have to do it every year when it gets dirty,” Lopez said.
She added that she hopes to recruit more volunteers to help her maintain the cemetery, particularly the descendants of those buried there. Hawkins said that she will continue to send volunteers Lopez’s way, even after the debris is gone.
As for what would happen to the cemetery without her, Lopez said that the property likely would have continued to be neglected. She said her sister, Clyde Williams, spearheaded the restoration of Bethlehem Methodist in the 1990s; Williams is now 93 years old and unable to continue maintaining the property.
With her sister’s blessing, 79-year-old Lopez took up the mantle and has been coming to the cemetery in her sister’s place.
“Now I’m coming back to fulfill her dreams because she wanted this place to look like a cemetery,” she said.
Lopez said that while the cemetery doesn’t get any visitors currently, she hopes that will change as its condition improves. There is a lot of history buried in these grounds, she said, and it’s important that people be able to access it.