Before the rain and wind stopped, the calls started.
Before the water began receding, people were rising to the occasion.
They shared social media posts and then shared their unused supplies.
They banded together to respond to fellow Floridians in need after Hurricane Ian decimated the towns of Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Sanibel and other communities on Sept. 28.
Locals citizens from across Pasco County sprang into action, donating what they could.
They organized drives, and filled cars and trucks to the brim.
They transported the supplies for the victims of the Category 4 storm that leveled homes, business, bridges and the normally tourist-filled beach towns, just a few hours south of Tampa Bay.
“I couldn’t sit back and watch — I had to help!” Wesley Chapel resident Esmeralda Morales said. “I’m new to Florida, I’ve been here for two years, and helping folks is my passion. I’ve never been down to Fort Myers and don’t know anyone there, but I know when other humans need my help.
“Watching the devastation on the news inspired me to take on this journey.”
Morales’ journey began by reaching out to her community, Union Park, to “collect whatever I could fit in my car.”
Morales and others drove down on Oct. 1. It took more than 3 ½-hours because parts of Interstate 75 had been closed, due to flooding.
When she arrived in Fort Myers, it was “heartbreaking,” she said.
“I volunteered at the ‘Safe Camp’ run by The Cajun Navy in North Fort Myers,” Morales said. “I’d walk over to cars in a 2-mile-long line and ask them how they were doing. So many said they were starving, and folks just wanted to tell their stories.
“Some simply cried and held my hand, others showed pictures of what was once their home, now a lot filled with debris. Many told me stories of how they had to swim to safety with their young children and even grandchildren.
“Others,” she added with sadness, “shared that they’ll never forget the images of floating bodies they’d observed.”
By midafternoon, the donations had run out, but the need had not.
“People were crying and pleading with us for anything,” Morales said.
In the northern Land O’ Lakes community of Asbel Estates, Timothy Dowd reached out to neighbors just mere hours after it was obvious that Pasco would avoid Ian’s devastation.
Dowd rounded up 16 cases of water, 10 gallons of water, shampoo/conditioner, bars of soap, children’s clothes, linens, snacks, four bags of dog food, two bags of cat food, trash bags and Clorox wipes.
Dowd delivered the donations — which all came from Asbel Estates — to Fort Myers on Sept. 29.
“We didn’t have anything else going on and figured we might as well help with what we could,” Dowd said. “We could’ve just as easily been put in that situation and hoping for someone to bring some supplies.”
David Steinberg, who lives in the Land O’ Lakes neighborhood of Lake Padgett Estates, also pitched in. With the help of his employer, Orthopediatrics, he helped raise $15,000 to buy 20 generations to deliver in a U-Haul to Fort Myers.
Stephanie Francis, a Plantation Palms resident, co-coordinated the effort with Steinberg. They set up a “donation center” in the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex parking lot on Sept. 30, and received donation after donation from nearby neighbors and residents. Those contributing brought everything from leftover water cases, extra food, clothes, batteries, and paper and baby products.
“We reached out through Facebook, a little through NextDoor, and the people from the neighborhoods and beyond just kept coming up,” said Francis, who was helped loading the truck by students in the Sunlake High Key Club and players from the Florida Premier Football at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex. “We put a sign up on Collier (Boulevard) and the neighborhoods really came together and were very generous.”
Steinberg said it only took about four hours to raise the money for the generators.
“People reached out and donated without hesitation,” he said.
Elsewhere, others set up supply drop-offs during the week through Oct. 7, such as Sunlake Academy Math and Science in Lutz.
The school’s principal, Dr. Judy Moore, is a member of the Land O’ Lakes Rotary Club, and its district had a Hurricane Ian relief drive. The donations collected at Sunlake Academy piled up high in the school’s front lobby.
“We chose to encourage our parents to participate in a drive-through donation drop-off in our morning car line,” Moore said. “Our drive ran through (Oct. 7) and we will put it with the rest of the rotary districts collections and (drove) them down south on (Oct. 8).”
Other schools, such as Pasco High and Sunlake High, had similar weeklong drop-offs, as well.
In addition to these drop-offs, churches and businesses also held collections. Grace Family Church Land O’ Lakes had a supply collection during it services on Oct. 5, while the car dealership, Jarrett Ford in Dade City, had a “Fill The Truck” drop-off and sent it down on Oct. 6.
However, it was the Pasco County citizens that put aside both their own responsibilities and concerns to band together, and help anyway they could.
The everyday neighbors from Land O’ Lakes to Lutz, from Dade City to Zephyrhills and into Wesley Chapel all joined together to make a difference.
“They are going to need more, and now it’s going to be clean-up supplies and equipment,” said Francis, who dropped off her donations to the MidWest Food Pantry in Fort Myers.
Items still needed include “work gloves, shovels, rakes, detergent to scrub houses that took in stormwater, etc.
They anticipate the next big need will be hygiene products.
“But my hope is to do this all over again, she added. “Get another truck full and down there with community help. Because it’s the right thing to do, as their neighbors.”
Published October 12, 2022