Weeks after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Sunshine State, South Floridians are looking beyond the confines of their homes and communities to help those who have lost absolutely everything in the Keys and islands. In many instances, these folks have no community — or country — to access or return to.
One group knows the islands perhaps better than anyone: boaters.
Some people take the periodic trip to Saint Thomas or weekend journey to the Keys, but boating and yachting folks live and breathe the islands every day.
And in the Keys’ and Caribbean islands’ most desperate time of need, incredible stories of love and human kindness are emerging. Among these accounts is that of Brian Turner, a resident of Bradenton and member of the Haulin Grass Fishing Team who has “countless memories in the Keys over the years.”
Partnering with businesses along the west coast of Florida with the goal of helping Marathon and places nearby, Turner and the Haulin Grass team collected more than 120,000 pounds of supplies in a matter of days. They loaded the goods onto semis and hand-delivered them to people in need and local authorities after a vividly grim multiday journey south.
“It’s really bad... What stuck out in my mind were the refrigerators and freezers in the median all the way down U.S. 1,” Turner says of his and three teammates' recent trek to the Keys. “It looks like a landfill... and it’s just brown all the way down there from the wind and salt blasts.”
Rachel Staddon, a Fort Lauderdale-based boat captain, has her own memories of the Keys immediately before and after Irma. One of her good friends had a heart attack while preparing for the storm, so she rushed to Tavernier to help him and some of his elderly friends secure their homes. After the storm, Staddon returned to a different world, where she tried to help bring some order to the chaos by cleaning her friend’s yard and surroundings.
“It was like a bomb went off in the Keys,” Staddon says. “We ventured down to Islamorada, and it was just horrendous... like a scene from The Walking Dead. Everything was gone or blown down... there was hardly anything to it anymore, but I had to help.”
Fort Lauderdale boat captain Carvey Iannuzzi has a number of clients throughout South Florida and the Caribbean. Following Irma, he was called to Saint Thomas to help residents save their submerged boats. Knowing the island was among the worst hit, he packed a box of toothbrushes and other necessities that were ultimately distributed to locals.
Each night, Iannuzzi flew to Puerto Rico from Saint Thomas (because there were no places to stay on the island at the time) until he found himself in the crosshairs of yet another monster storm: Hurricane Maria. Amid the panic that ensued before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Iannuzzi was fortunate enough to catch one of the last U.S.-bound flights off the island.
Since his return, he and his fiancée, Kara, have collected a truck full of supplies and driven them to Islamorada, where they first met. As for his return to the Caribbean, Iannuzzi says, “I’m planning to go back as soon as I can get there.”
Despite the stories of selflessness, there are still so many other people who need help. Among those driving forward-thinking initiatives is Alex Rojas, a hotel manager in Dania Beach.
At the core of his efforts is a place he holds dear: the island of Vieques, located just off the east coast of Puerto Rico and home to nearly 10,000 people. Rojas lived there for four years as the director of housekeeping at a large resort. Because he so many connections in Vieques, he's beginning to hear horror stories pour in.
“Violence is starting to take over the island... looting has started, and [the thieves] are starting to go to the most vulnerable places, like hotels,” Rojas says. “Not much is guarding them at all, and people are afraid and have nothing.”
Together with friends from across the United States — via a group called ViequesLove — Rojas is helping collect funds to buy necessities for those on the island. The group needs someone to step up to help them deliver the goods.
“We’re going to need some honest folks, maybe with a big boat, to help us get these supplies there,” he says.
So what can you do to help? According to the folks who have been there firsthand, here’s the scoop:
Iannuzzi: “If you can find someone in the islands or Keys that needs a toothbrush or clothes or the most basic necessities, find a way to get a box of stuff to them, whether it’s by mail or another way. Anything helps.”
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Staddon: “The Keys are made up of hotels, bars, and restaurants. So many people right now have no way of generating income. In addition to donating wherever you can now, it will be important to remember these businesses and how you can engage with them months from now.”
Turner: “Contact the local municipalities down there and work through their protocols and through the channels that they operate. See if there is a way that the workers and volunteers down there can be relieved for a day or two to deal with their own losses. Everyone is recovering.”
Rojas: “We’re seeing the funds come in. And soon we’ll need a way to get the different types of supplies and clothing we purchased to the people on Vieques. For now, everyone is trying to survive the shock of the hurricane and the little they have left together.”