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Signs of Relief

Recognized as one of the largest storms in over a decade, Hurricane Irma made a community stronger through unlikely means…

The term “hurricane” has long been a familiar one for Florida, and these particular storms have made landfall more times than most residents can probably count. Approximately half of the calendar year has been begrudgingly dedicated as hurricane season, and recent meteorological trends suggest that the majority of hurricanes occur in the latter half of that period.

Although tracking data, modules and other tools have drastically enhanced our ability for preparedness over the years, hurricanes are still considered tricky beasts to tame. There are several different projection models that are consulted once a storm is spotted in the Atlantic Ocean, and many times their estimates directly conflict one another. Despite the best possible efforts of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), uncertainty remains a large factor in the few days before an anticipated strike.

Hurricane Irma was no different in this regard, and she was compared to one of the most damaging and catastrophic of predecessors, Hurricane Andrew. Irma was worse in some ways, however, because she had a near-perfect eye formation and was roughly double the size of Andrew and Central Florida received its fair share of her wrath.

The winds of Hurricane Irma were felt as early as Saturday, Sept. 9, with the majority of the storm passing over Central Florida that Sunday night into Monday. Orange County resident Harry O’Connell recounts his experiences during those long few days.

“I didn’t expect this storm to be as catastrophic for us as in some other areas, but I was definitely a little concerned because of [Irma’s] size and power,” says O’Connell. “I wasn’t sure if boarding up my windows was going to be worth the hassle, but I decided to do it anyway.”

O’Connell was one of many residents who shared similar sentiments about this storm. He and his wife, Jean, spoke to a number of neighbors leading up to Irma’s landfall, and said that almost everyone felt a mix of uncertainty and uneasiness.

“There was so much hysteria and anticipation leading up to the impact,” says O’Connell. “We all felt torn about just how threatening she [Irma] was going to be, and we didn’t know whether we’d be regretting having spent money on preparations, or thankful to have done so.”

Ultimately, the O’Connells prepared for the hit as much as possible, and it turned out to be in good measure. Their neighborhood experienced substantial flooding and downed trees, and they lost power for several days.

“We’ve lived in various parts of Florida for many years, but we had forgotten what it felt like to be in the midst of a storm this size,” says Jean O’Connell. “Storms from the last few years had changed course or were much smaller, so it always felt less forceful. This one was definitely much stronger, and it hovered over us for what felt like 10 hours.”

Irma showed little mercy during her trip through the Sunshine State, and though the massive loss of power was anticipated by some, it became an insurmountable problem for many others.

“Our generator that we bought for a previous storm wasn’t working, so we lost absolutely all of the food in both fridges that we have,” says resident Elly Michame. She and her family were among thousands of individuals who lost large amounts of perishable goods. “When you operate around a weekly or monthly budget, losing that much over the course of a few days is going to really set you back,” she says.

Michame was one of several thousands of individuals who stood outside of Central Florida’s food banks, churches, donation centers and nonprofits in the days following the hurricane. These incredible organizations and their volunteers did everything in their power to spend precious hours aiding those in need.

Unfortunately, these organizations faced extreme struggles of their own, with prices of out-of-state shipments being inflated due to demand, additional perishables spoiling and water being constantly low in supply.

With these difficulties, many groups such as the Love Pantry and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida made efforts to let Orange and Osceola County residents know that if they had been fortunate enough to retain power and bought too much in anticipation of the storm, they could contribute by dropping off their excess goods. So far, the feedback has been incredible, and efforts from anonymous donors have made it possible for these organizations to keep serving the public.

Other residents did not find themselves as lucky if they happened to be owners of a local shop or had their business set up here. Many beloved stores and restaurants were damaged to a degree that set their owners back thousands of dollars, while others were wiped out completely. To make matters worse, several of these individuals also lost their homes in the process.

One such owner, Wendy Mazariegos of Interiors By Wendy in Kissimmee, is a newly minted resident of Greater Orlando. She and her family had just moved into the state of Florida one month prior to the storm. Luckily, her business didn’t suffer damage, but she saw many others who didn’t fare near as well.

“I saw how this hurricane devastated the homes of many families,” says Mazariegos. “Even though we didn’t suffer major damage, others in [Central] Florida lost entire homes and businesses.”

“Our neighbor’s fence and roof received damage, and we lost power for a week,” she says.

After the storm, Mazariegos decided that she could play a big role in helping others get back on their feet. Be it luck or good fortune, her family didn’t lose as much as those around them, and she took this to heart. She has started accepting donations from those who can provide, and she will be donating a portion of her earnings to a select number of families.

“I decided to help those that need to start from zero again,” she says. “I will be helping them get new furnishings, among other resources.”

The efforts of private citizens like Mazariegos have aided in real and promising repair among the community at large. Along with these efforts, city officials and first responders have taken similar important steps to combat the destruction and get things back up and running.

Once Irma came onto the radar, every city of Orlando responder took action to protect makeshift shelters by placing tens of thousands of sandbags at Camping World Stadium and lift stations.

Since the hurricane made landfall, the Orlando Public Works Department has collected over 300,000 yards of fallen debris, and has offered childcare for free at safe neighborhood centers. Moreover, Orlando Fire Department and EMS teams delivered water and several bags of ice to those in need and, perhaps most importantly, conducted wellness checks at every nursing home in the area.

In addition, Orlando police came out to monitor and manually direct traffic at over 100 intersections without power, as well as assist with the cutting of fallen trees and refueling of generators wherever needed.

Staff and volunteers who were stationed at city and community center locations played a crucial role in the recovery efforts as well. A citizen information line was activated for a week in early September; this line was monitored by all available staff and 58 charitable volunteers daily, and it received almost two thousand calls during operation.

Businesses and private homeowners received aid from the city as well, in the form of waived permit fees for all repairs that were requested as a result of Irma. So far, 100 permits have been waived, and this relief effort will continue into December of this year.

Despite not being in its direct route of impact, Hurricane Irma managed to cause a substantial amount of damage, fear, worry and heartache for almost every resident in the Greater Orlando area. The sheer power and size of this storm made it so that every area experienced storm-force winds and extreme rainfall, and many residents are still feeling the effects of this intense phenomenon.

The economic impact, too, will be felt for many years, but there is hope that the emotional state has continued to improve across the board, due largely to the kindness and generosity of our dedicated community.

Efforts from public and private citizens alike have made a world of difference for those who suffered, and there is much to be said for the ones who upheld a sense of selflessness and humanity in times of disaster and chaos. It is this type of remarkable character that allows a community to withstand mounting pressure and maintain hope, and it’s clear to see that the City Beautiful is filled with it.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s November 2017 issue.

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