Lynchburg family flying to Puerto Rico in search of…

Lynchburg’s Lydia Simerly has called her 90-year-old parents, Angel Ortiz Rivera and Bengina Rivera Rivera, every night for the past two weeks.

The couple, who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico with their daughter Wilma Rivera, hasn’t answered since Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“I waited, I waited. I called my sisters, and we all got in a conference call … to see what the plan was, but no one had a plan. We were just gonna wait,” said Lydia Simerly, 60. “I can’t wait no more.

“I can’t. I’m not that type of person.”

So the Simerlys and a family friend are headed to the island, a U.S. territory, to find them Saturday.

Ron Simerly, his two stepdaughters Sonia Huebner and Madalena Phelps and friend Christina Kline will fly out from Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday morning.

They will land that afternoon at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, which reopened Sept. 22. It is about an hour away by car from their destination in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.

Or about 14 hours by foot, Ron Simerly, 59, said Wednesday — but that’s a last resort.

The crew is hoping to have a rental car ready, but they won’t know if there are any working cars at the rental company until they arrive, Ron Simerly said. They’ll land at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, with just a few hours to get to Aibonito before Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s curfew goes into effect.

“Otherwise they’ll be sleeping in the car,” Lydia Simerly said.

With a week of meals strapped to their backs and dozens of “humanitarian packets” — including water purification tablets, waterproof matches, collapsible water bottles and gas cans in tow — the group is on a mission to find “proof of life” for their family members while also helping anyone else in need.

“It’s not just about finding my family,” said Phelps, 39. “It’s about trying to ease somebody’s suffering while all this is going on.”

Unlike many others on the island who live in “shanties” — improvised homes made out of wood or recycled metal — the Riveras lived in a concrete home, Ron Simerly said.

In previous storms, flooding was common, and it wasn’t unusual for the family to stack furniture as high as they could before opening the doors to let the water run through.

“And then once it’s gone, you squeegee out the house and dry it out,” he said. “That’s during a normal storm.”

But this storm, considered a “potentially catastrophic” event by the National Hurricane Center, was different.

The roads in Aibonito often are washed out during regular-strength rainstorms, Lydia Simerly said. She’s not sure what they’ll find.

The Riveras’ backyard was flooded, and they lost their roof, power and running water after Hurricane Irma hit, but they were fine, Lydia Simerly said.

She received the last status update Tuesday, Sept. 19, the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall south of the Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico. That is about two hours east from Aibonito.

The family has called the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several other organizations, but they haven’t been able to get help or an answer, Ron Simerly said. So the group decided to take it upon themselves to find their family, he said.

The week before Maria hit the island, Angel Ortiz Rivera had a pacemaker installed, Lydia Simerly said, and the couple has other health issues that make her worried about access to medication and access to money to buy supplies.

“In my heart, I know my parents are okay,” Lydia Simerly said. “… but we got to fill their needs now. Can you imagine two 90-year-olds carrying water?”

“Or standing in line at Walmart for hours?” Phelps said.

Ronald Simerly is taking a generator and homemade water purification system to give to his in-laws. The hope is Angel Ortiz Rivera and Ron Simerly stay in Aibonito, as to not leave the home unattended for fear of looting, while Bengina Rivera Rivera, Wilma Rivera and the rest of the rescue crew come back to Lynchburg.

Lydia isn’t sure where her parents will be, but the group is ready to look for them at area shelters. They expect to fly back to Virginia on Oct. 13, but the group is expecting delays, Ron Simerly said.

“We don’t mind sitting and waiting,” he said. “We’re there to help family.”

People in Puerto Rico are waiting in line to leave, and others are stranded, hungry and hot, he said — a sharp contrast to his previous description of the island as “the closest thing to heaven and home that I have personally experienced.”

“I’ve never seen [Lydia] cry more in my life than in the past week,” he said.

Lydia Simerly was standing in front of her kitchen sink Monday night.

She said just turning on the sink reminds her of them.

“I just thought of them not having water, nothing to drink and you know? Their age, they’re standing in line.”

She cried and went to bed right after.

But she called her parents first.

Publication: The News and Advance

Restoration projects popping up on Daniel’s Hill as more…

Grace Fletcher starts every morning by cleaning up trash in front of her Cabell Street home. Dressed in all purple, Fletcher shook her head as she explained it’s not the residents who make the mess, it’s the people passing through. Fletcher lives in Daniel’s Hill, which spans from A Street to H Street and from Rivermont Avenue to the James River. It grew out of about 757 acres of land owned by Dr. George Cabell, a physician to patriot Patrick Henry in the 1800s and Cabell Street’s namesake, said Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System.

The area was established in the 1840s and annexed into the city in 1870, according to The Lynchburg Historical Foundation.

Fletcher’s mother, Gladys Smith, was born in 1898 on Daniel’s Hill. She lived on the hill for most of her life and mothered 14 children, of which Fletcher was number 13. She was born on Dabney Street in 1937 and so has seen most of Daniel’s Hill’s evolution first hand, she said.

“When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody,” Fletcher said. “But now it’s so much different; we don’t know anybody.”

Fletcher walked the D Street Bridge every morning to go to school, as she wasn’t allowed to walk down Cabell Street, she said. In fact, no blacks were allowed on Cabell Street at all.

Blacks were segregated to the bottom of the hill, while rich whites lived at the top in large homes, she said.

Those homes — mid- and late-nineteenth century mansions with styles ranging from Federal to Queen Anne — line most of Cabell Street, according to the Historical Foundation.

“We weren’t even allowed at the Point of Honor when we were coming up,” Fletcher said. “We weren’t allowed there, that’s why I don’t care for it now.”

Cabell built Point of Honor, the two-story focal point of the southern end of Daniel’s Hill, in 1815. After a series of deaths, Point of Honor was inherited by Judge William Daniel, Sr.; Cabell’s relative by marriage and the inspiration for the hill’s name.

“When Point of Honor was built, it was a plantation that stretched from Blackwater Creek to what is now Randolph College,” Harvey said. “So a great deal of what we know as Rivermont is actually part of the Point of Honor property.”

During the early days of Point of Honor, the Cabells owned slaves, he said.

“And until 1865, that was the life in Lynchburg, Virginia,” Harvey said. “After the Civil War, you basically move into the Jim Crow era, which is where slaves have been freed but haven’t been fully integrated into society and the laws changed to basically keep them very segregated. “Even in my youth — you’re in Lynchburg in the 50s, 60s and 70s — Lynchburg was still a segregated society.”

Echoes of segregation and the sharp income disparities between residents on the hill still can be seen today.

Over the years, the Daniel family broke up the Point of Honor property, Harvey said, which allowed the area to develop into a mixture of factories, foundries and worker homes.

“But it wasn’t until the River – mont Bridge was built that it actually comes into the city and you get an actual urban [area] with lots of houses and lots of people,” Harvey said. “They had to build that bridge over that huge Blackwater Creek gully first.”

That bridge brought Daniel’s Hill “into the fold” in 1891, Harvey said.

But the area’s growth didn’t last long.

“In my youth growing up here in the 50s and 60s, Cabell Street and Daniel’s Hill was no longer — many of the more affluent people had moved further out to other parts of town … so a lot of wealthy families had left,” Harvey said.

The rich white residents began to move to Boonsboro, allowing blacks to move into the area, Fletcher said.

“I guess we were moving too close for some people,” she said. “So they got out.”

Daniel’s Hill always has been a varied neighborhood, Harvey said.

“You’ve got some of the large wealthy families that built houses on Cabell Street but you also had on some of the side streets and further out Rivermont, you got some workers’ homes — people who worked in the foundries and factories of Lynchburg,” he said.

“Most of these simpler dwellings were erected around the turn of the century to accommodate laborers in the factories lining the James [River] below the hill,” the district’s United States Department of Interior application for the National Register of Historic Places reads.

Harvey said he remembers about 10 to 12 factories on the riverfront when he was a child.

“The word in town then was you could go on any given day, if you were an able body person, you could go down the hill and get a job,” Harvey said. “… Those days, unfortunately, are done.”

Fletcher said she lives on the poorer side of the hill, next to the historic district.

“Now, nobody got nothing,” she said, explaining the aging population on Daniel’s Hill has left many residents on social security without money to restore their homes or move. That’s why many of the houses appear run down, she said.

Richard Morris, a city historic preservation commissioner and advocate for Daniel’s Hill, first saw the hill in 2000.

“My opinion of Daniel’s Hill back then was … that neighborhood had great potential, but I would never live there,” he said.

The district’s NHR application was submitted in 1983, defining the neighborhood as “almost completely a working class one.”

“Most of the mansions are deteriorated and are either vacant or divided into rental units,” it reads. “Efforts towards the rehabilitation of the neighborhood are underway through both the city and the local redevelopment and housing authority.”

A drug problem started to appear in the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues in parts of the community, Fletcher said.

Morris said many homes were converted to apartments during the mid-twentieth century.

“I’d say in the 70s and 80s, there were crack houses there,” he said. “It was terrible. And so, that is turning around now. I think the neighborhood got to the point where it couldn’t get any worse … I remember when I was selling my house on C Street — a young couple was buying it — an old timer from Lynchburg said ‘Oh, you don’t want to buy that house, that’s a real bad neighborhood down there.’”

Point of Honor was donated to the city in the 1920s and became a recreation center, which ran until the 1960s, Harvey said.

“Then it kind of sits there, vacant and forlorn,” he said. “And the American bicentennial of 1976 is on the horizon and that created a lot of historic sites and historic houses across America. So a group of people in Lynchburg got together and decided they would restore the Point of Honor to its historical condition as a bi – centennial project.”

After a substantial donation, Point of Honor opened to the public in 1978, Harvey said.

“I’d say beginning in the 1970s, you have the beginnings of people coming in and taking those large, old houses and starting to restore them,” he said. The historic Rivermont House — named for its view of the river; as in the James, and mont as in “high ground” — lies behind Point of Honor and was built by the Judge William Daniel Jr., Harvey said.

Morris bought the property 10 years after first laying eyes on the area.

“In that 10-year span, it obviously cleaned up enough for me to want to buy there,” he said. “… I just remember the neighborhood being really derelict, trash.”

He said he considered Rivermont House to be in “dire straits. It wasn’t habitable when I started.”

Restoration began about three years ago, Morris said. The floors were destroyed and there was stench that pervaded the entire home.

“When you find a house that has gone through hard times, usually the neighborhood has gone through the same hard times,” he said.

Morris is working on restoring the outside before winter weather arrives. He’s also planning to build a four-car carriage house.

“So I’m really going to transform that whole landscape,” he said, adding he wouldn’t have bought Rivermont House if he didn’t think the neighborhood was improving.

From a plantation to a collection of homes divided by income to now, Daniel’s Hill has evolved, Fletcher said.

She said part of the change is due to the influx of people restoring homes and part to young couples moving into the area looking for affordable housing. Deborah Pringle, 23, and her husband Ian Pringle, 24, decided to buy a home in Daniel’s Hill almost a year ago because they heard the neighborhood was “on the up-and-up.”

“The price was right,” she said. “We’re just getting started in life.”

The couple moved into their $54,000, three-bedroom home this past October. The family plans to live in Daniel’s Hill for another five years and then sell the house at a profit, she said.

“We’re kind of doing some renovations,” she said, explaining they might end up staying a longer than planned.

Buying low and selling high in Daniel’s Hill is a step toward their dream of owning a self-sufficient farm one day, she said.

Fletcher said the restoration of downtown Lynchburg is drawing people to the hill.

“It’s going to be all right after a while, I guess,” she said. “People are moving downtown, and this is the downtown area so it might become something.”

Daniel’s Hill still is a neighborhood of transition, Harvey said.

“You got a number of restored homes and bed and breakfasts, and then you have a number of homes that need rehabilitation,” he said.

The growing appreciation for the architecture and natural beauty of the James River is why Harvey returned to Lynchburg after 25 years away, he said.

“My crystal ball is as cloudy as everybody else’s but I think, what I’m seeing, I think Lynchburg is going to continue to grow and prosper — and for multiple reasons; it’s not going to be tobacco, it’s not going to be railroads, it’s going to be the quality of life from the natural beauty of the trail system, the river,” Harvey said. “It’s going to be from young people who maybe come here for the colleges and decide to stay.

“We’re also seeing a good increase in tourism … and I think that peoples’ interest in restoring old houses is going to continue to grow,” he said. “And those young people that maybe have more energy and time than money will be doing sweat equity, and you can see that on Daniel’s Hill and other neighborhoods where young people are returning — and people in general — are returning.”

Young couples seem to be popping up all over the hill, Morris said, and the neighborhood appears on the upswing.

“Some people don’t believe it, but it’s a nice place to live,” Fletcher said. “It really is if you get to know the people.”

Across the street, Pringle stood near her 6-day old son Alistair and peered out the window. She’s seen the neighbors pick – ing up the trash each morning.

“I’ve never lived in a place where people care so much they clean up after other people,” she said.

Publication: Discover Magazine