LEWISTON, Maine — Weeks after fires destroyed downtown apartment buildings, displacing as many as 200 people, families are finally finding themselves at home again.
On Tuesday afternoon, only five blocks from their former 172 Blake St. apartment, Adriana and Jamie Garcia were rebuilding their lives in their new dwelling on Pine Street.
Jamie laughed about putting the wrong legs on the new coffee and end tables, while Adriana said, “It feels good to be putting our lives back together again.”
She said their first night on Pine Street, they found themselves with an air mattress but no forks, knives or plates. Their first meal found Garcia at her new neighbor’s door, asking to borrow a can opener.
Opening up the large cabinet doors, Garcia showed off an array of dishes, cookware and foodstuffs, enough, along with Garcia’s optimism, to make one think there had been no loss.
“All this was donated,” she said with a smile and tone of disbelief. “I’m OK — I’m alive — I feel blessed,” Garcia said, giving thanks to The Salvation Army, friends, family and God.
A friend of Garcia’s, Laura Curtis, who works at Rite Aid on Main Street, offered her a set of dishes. When Curtis told her husband, Douglas, who also happens to be the manager of Big Lots in Auburn, he felt moved to help as well.
Douglas Curtis has been working to help fire victims from the start. Donations flowed in from Big Lots and, according to Laura, employees used their vehicles to transport donated items.
Curtis, who has also been working with The Salvation Army on behalf of Big Lots, used that connection to make sure the Garcias would have a new bed.
Garcia said her former lawyer sent her a check for $150, her children sent her money and her nephew is going to hold a fundraiser for the couple to help replace a vehicle that was also lost in the fire.
All the Garcias’ family still live in their native Texas, including their four grown children. The couple moved to Maine about eight years ago, when Jaime took a job with DeCoster egg farm in Turner.
Now an industrial roofer, Jaime said he doesn’t regret their decision to make their home in Maine. Adriana added that she still sits and watches the snow fall, something she never saw before moving to Maine.
The couple had spent the last eight years at the same address on Bates Street, where Adriana served as the manager for the building.
There, she said, her bell rang every day and night except for one. The night of the fire, nobody came to tell the Garcias.
Adriana, with a broken left foot, awoke to smoke in the apartment and burning embers in her window. With Jaime at work, Adriana jumped out of bed, reinjuring her foot.
In another apartment, Richard and Alicia LePage were also unaware of the danger until Garcia pounded on their door and helped the couple escape.
“I feel like I did something because God led me to it. I did what a normal person who cares about people does,” Garcia said.
The story of Garcia’s rescue of the LePages was even heard in Texas, where local journalists wanted to hear from the hometown girl turned hero.
Garcia said she loves her new apartment, although Jaime will take awhile to feel at home. Putting things in perspective, Garcia said the recent Oklahoma tornado disaster brought tears to her eyes, and she feels lucky.
“Considering the number of moving parts, I think things have gone quite well,” said Kendall C. “KC” Putnam, assistant plans and training officer at Androscoggin Unified Emergency Management Agency.
After the grueling process of registering fire victims, soliciting donations and finding victims services, the agency, along with organizations such as Red Cross and The Salvation Army and state offices such as the Department of Health and Human Services, families are being placed in apartments.
Settling this many families comes with its own set of challenges. Putnam said the agency has had to solicit help in moving operations, making sure donations and families actually come together with their new abodes.
On Thursday, Bisson Moving sent a truck and three professional movers to assist in the efforts.
On Friday however, volunteer efforts fizzled and stock from Marden’s became depleted.
Crews are scheduled this week with help from Cumberland County Department of Corrections work release.
According to Putnam, Marden’s was one of the first businesses to step forward with fire donations. Marden’s is providing deep discounts and free warehousing of items for agencies helping the victims.
Putnam said Marden’s is continually pulling from other stores in order to meet local need.
Renys also has responded with deeply discounted wares to the agency. Putnam said 53 sets of cookware and table settings will be delivered Wednesday.
Putnam spoke of a “tremendous response and outpouring of donated goods,” immediately after the disaster, facilitating a need for the agency to establish its own warehouse for all aid agencies to pool their resources.
He said they received, among other donation efforts, a school bus of goods from WPOR radio station in Portland and a couple of truckloads of donations from Republic Jewelry in Auburn.
“We started to solicit requests for mattresses,” Putnam said, adding that used mattresses could not be given to victims for health and safety reasons. As the much-needed mattresses started coming in, they, too, went to the warehouse.
But the need surpassed material donations, and cash donations were requested for the agency to make direct purchases.
“Catholic Charities was a big player,” Putnam said, along with the Red Cross and United Way.
Putnam said Catholic Charities furnished a Budget rental truck for the agency to make runs between Marden’s and the warehouse they secured.
Cash donations were able to be used to buy appropriate material needs, once more presenting a challenge. It’s easy to find kitchen items sold separately, Putnam said, but locating entire sets of dishes and cookware, some for large families, was another story.
Putnam also saw that, although the generosity has been great, it hasn’t always been a perfect fit.
“One of the issues, certainly, is because of cultural differences,” Putnam said. “Some of the donated goods — some of the items were not culturally appropriate.”
The last of the families should find themselves in a new home by Friday, according to Putnam, but the need will continue. “A lot of people were able to get bedding but no furniture. We now have a lot of work to go back and back-fill some of the needs.”
Worried about who gets something old and who gets something new, Putnam said the agency is working very hard to make sure everyone comes out as whole as possible.