For Eastpoint residents rebuilding their lives following the Lime Rock fire, that process has cracked open another issue that has been mounting in the community, and caused its own share of devastation.
Drug activity, including the sale and use of methamphetamine, in a rural neighborhood where people have lived in peace and quiet in Franklin County for generations, is why Sheriff A.J. Smith plans to place a substation near Wilderness, Ridge, Bear Creek and Buck roads.
This additional outpost was an idea that came about before the disaster, but is timely. The sheriff said it will back up the legwork of existing patrols on streets where children play, but residents report are riddled with drug traffickers riding on bicycles from late at night into the early morning.
Charles Brannen, on Ridge Road, says these same travelers are scoping private properties for items to steal, then trade to make drug deals with.
“Stealing is not because of the fire,” Brannen said. “But, it slowed down for two weeks.”
Boat motors and batteries, tools and a double-axle trailer, are just a few of the items he has had taken. “Last week gas got siphoned out of my work truck.” Brannen said, “I couldn’t care if they put a station in my front yard. I’d give them permission to build a jailhouse if they can catch them.”
For this reason, Dwight Polous, who has lived on Ridge for 35 years, is grateful the clean-up of burned properties was done quickly. “They couldn’t steal during the fire,” he said. “Because they had to walk down the main street. There were ashes in the woods.”
He shows where “they step off to when deputies drive by, then cut through when they’re gone.”
Both men know taking matters into their own hands is dangerous, but they have felt like they need to. Polous installed surveillance cameras, and Brannen has slept outside because “My dog can hear certain bicycles half-a-mile away, and will alert me.”
Polous, who raises grandkids ages 4 to 13 with wife Cathy, said about a substation, “It can be a trailer set up, to hit hot spots. We want something out here so the elderly, and single mothers, are safe raising kids.
“For me, if you haven’t got safety, you ain’t got nothing. When a presence is around, the presence of bad is not. You can’t stop what you don’t have your hands on,” Polous said.
“We need to be there,” said the sheriff. “A substation is a place for residents to go. Nobody can be everywhere, all the time, and when the crime is occurring, five minutes is a long time.”
“It’s a way to work closer with the community,” Smith said. “It’s a place people like living in, so we want to make it a better place. We’ve done that,” referring to tactics like curbing debris dumping, and cracking down on meth arrests since he first assumed office.
“Meth has gotten to everybody,” said Brannen. “Some got locked up, but it’s a revolving door.”
Scott Shiver, youth pastor at the Eastpoint Church of God, said that while the meth use has increased, especially over the last year, the problem is greater than the drug.
“I don’t know if a substation is an answer. I’m not against it but speaking from a pastor’s point of view, this is a sin problem,” said Shiver. “I’m at the jail every week and the minute drugs don’t cloud their skills, prisoners ask what we are going to do about it. The sheriff has done what he said he was going to do, but someone has to keep telling them, ‘you’re doing good.’”
“It’s not meth on that block, it’s the loss of hope,” he said, referring to the economic climate since the seafood industry declined, and harvest of sellable oysters in Apalachicola Bay dried up.
“It has translated back to where they live, from where they worked,” Shiver said, referring to acreage originally bought by people, nearly all of whom worked the water.
“I don’t look at them as criminals, but victims of circumstance,” he said.
“I remember when there were five people waiting to fill up tanks and 200 on the (oyster) bar, and all you heard was laughter,” Shiver reminisced. “They were living a dream. Heaven has been taken away but they won't leave for the same reason people move here. This is heaven on Earth.”
Brannen echoed that view. “Since the oyster industry dwindled, it’s made it worse for some to turn to what they can maintain,” he said. “Even before houses burned down, it’s hard to find a place to rent, and only if someone got evicted. But when they get on drugs, they don’t care what they live in.”
Polous remembers when Wilderness hadn’t been cut yet. “If you don't live out here, you have no clue,” he said, responding to some, on the sheriff’s social media page, who have claimed the substation idea is a publicity stunt, and a disservice to taxpayers, since the sheriff’s office is just five miles from these neighborhoods proposed for this project.
“People are quick to put a price on it,” said Polous, who believes the substation could be a stamp on a new horizon for the fire-affected area.
He’s suggested installing low-pressure sodium streetlights, and compares catching addicts to tracking deer.
“Deer walk in the same area in a rhythm, that is easy to break,” he said. “If you see bugs crawling in the daytime, baby, when you turn the lights out you’re going to have bugs. Gotta light it up.”
The sheriff said the neighborhood has produced lots of calls, recently citing to in a TV news interview that from January to July, 1,300 calls about drugs, domestic disputes and burglaries warranted a response.
“Why wouldn’t we want to be closer?” he asked.
As a youth pastor with deep roots the community, Shiver knows both the good and the bad of Eastpoint.
“I don’t want to paint the whole thing black,” Shiver said. “I love this town. I don’t love what’s happening to it. I’ve got good kids that come from those neighborhoods.”
“Sometimes, it moves in around you,” he said. “Eastpoint is unique in that middle class and below live side by side. But just because one person is achieving doesn’t mean the other isn’t trying.”
“There’s always been a drug problem, and will be, as long as people like doing drugs. The struggle for the bay took everybody down and meth is cheap. People have no education in other fields, so you’re going to have some looking to make easy money.”
“Maybe this will help them to dream again, to see they can have something,” he said of the new, temporary trailers that have been provided. “But, without the income source, that part is not going to change.”
Smith said that he hopes to find someone willing to donate a part of their land to set up shop. “We have stuff to move out there. We’re still looking, and, will see what happens,” he said.
Polous too balanced his anger with affection. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. There are good people living in these conditions, too,” he said. “Trying to enjoy a little bit out of life, with what’s going on, but all it’s going to take is one kid poked with a needle to ruin that kid’s life.”
“We allowed this to happen to our neighborhoods, by not speaking up,” he said. “A.J. is only as good as his deputies are.
“No one can rightfully say something unless they have slept in our beds and lived in our houses,” said Polous.
“We do not need to barb wire the block,” said Shiver, of this peaceful place, near to the woods. “We need to give people another dream.”