By ALLEN RAU
When Deb and Don Burger began building their “tiny house” in their backyard, they envisioned it being used as a sort of clubhouse for their grandchildren or a refuge for themselves when their home was filled with youngsters.
Hurricane Florence provided a reason for the house to become an important refuge for evacuees from a storm.
Over the past week, four Florence-impacted folks have taken up residence in the “tiny house” as involuntary tourists of Jonesborough.
“We had three young people from Myrtle Beach who were here for the past three days,” Deb Burger explained on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 17. “This next guy is reserved for four days. If he chooses to extend it because he needs to, that’s available. If not, he’ll leave and we may get booked by somebody else.”
Their current tenant is seeking refuge from Savannah, Georgia.
The Burgers are members of a Facebook group called, “Florence evacuation support in East TN/W NC/SW VA”. They are two of the more than 1,500 members of the group that have extended whatever assistance they can to victims of the most recent natural disaster to strike.
“Every day when I check the postings, there are people who say, ‘I can’t keep somebody. If you need help feeding the evacuees who are staying with you, call me at this number or message me and I’ll make casseroles.’ Or we get other people saying, ‘I can go buy dog food if you’ve got evacuees staying with you who have pets, I can provide dog and cat food.’ We get other people saying ‘I can’t keep people but if they need a place for their livestock, I’ve got a horse stall; I’ve got room for two goats.’
Deb was quick to stress that she is just one of many hands.
“I say ‘we,’”she explained. “I have participated in a group. I was not the brains behind it. That’s Kiran (Sirah) and Ren (Allen) … The Facebook group started last year for Hurricane Irma and we revived it and changed the name and got it going again for Florence. The page acts as a clearinghouse for people who need help and people who are offering help.”
The Burgers offered assistance during Irma in the form of a campsite in their backyard and an RV hookup, which included water and electricity.
In addition to Facebook, the couple’s house is listed on Airbnb, an online marketplace and hospitality service that brokers short-term lodging rentals.
“They have a program called ‘Open Homes’ where you can choose to turn that option on and that flips your cost to zero for people who are refugees,” Deb explained. All fees and rent are waived for refugees of natural disasters.
The decision to offer assistance was an easy one for them, as they know the strain each evacuee is under.
“We try to provide shelter. It’s not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination but you can stand up, you can change your clothes, it’s dry and you have a warm place to sleep. They pay nothing and we provide what comfort we can. It’s clean and dry and there’s electricity.”
While the tiny house has been a blessing for the evacuees, the original use was as far from a disaster as it can possibly get.
“The grandchildren like to camp out there. And when our house is full of grown children and little-bitty ones, then Don and I sleep up there for a few nights while the kids are being noisy in our home … Tiny houses are a thing. There’s the TV shows, there are books about them. We’ve had it in mind for long enough now that I don’t remember where we originally got the idea.”
The house still is not completed, so the recent guests had to make do with a few trips to the Burger’s house for bathroom breaks and showers. But soon enough those trips will be things of the past, Deb said.
“Eventually, our goal for the tiny house is it will have solar on the roof and there will be a composting toilet. The power is from a car battery, which you keep charged from solar. We have plans to build an outdoor shower in the back.”
While the tiny project is still underway, Deb said they have provided as much comfort as they could for the evacuees.
“We have a sink where we put two gallon drinking jugs on so a person can make tea in the hot pot and we keep little tea cups and saucers with some honey and tea out here. There’s drinking water, there’s a place to brush your teeth or wash your face, you just have to empty the bucket every day. There’s a chair and table and places to store things that’s the first floor.”
Upstairs has an inflatable mattress with a window view of the neighborhood.
Deb Burger said her husband Don provided a treat for the recent tenants.
“Don has made, and my husband is a great cook and baker, and he made muffins for breakfast every morning. We make spaghetti or soup or something that we can feed a crowd with for supper and just try to provide comfort and a place to regroup for as long as they need it.”
While the first three evacuees certainly had enough on their minds during their stay at the Burgers’ tiny house, some much needed good news managed to reach them.
“The first guests had found out that their house was not destroyed. They had relatives who rode out the storm and told them they could start working their way back home,” she explained.
While the relief of having a dry, warm place to ride out the storm in safety must be overwhelming, Deb said the thought of offering help was never in doubt.
“When they’re evacuees, we’re seeing people at their worst (moment) and their most stressed out. So the call is to show comfort and mercy. That’s what it’s completely all about.”