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Stronger than Irma
Hurricane Irma was the “strongest hurricane the National Hurricane Center has ever recorded in the Atlantic,” according to World Vision, an organization that donates money to children in poverty-stricken areas. The hurricane rolled through the Caribbean Islands and Florida, causing storm surge, powerful winds and destruction.
Even though the hurricane emptied grocery shelves and left, according to CNBC, 6.2 million homes without power, something even more powerful arose from the storm — a strong community response.
Members of the College Park community assisted one another and worked to rebuild the community. Neighbors helped others clear debris from their yards, cars and even homes. Donations to supply families with clothing and nonperishables came into local shelters and organizations such as One Heart for Women and Children. Businesses even opened their doors to those who lost power so food wouldn’t go bad.
Despite this natural disaster, College Park has shown there can be sunshine on even the cloudiest of days.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Many individuals went out of their way to help other families as much as they could after the storm.
Blair Cornett is a wife and the mother of children ages 3, 6 and 8. She and her family were extremely touched when neighbors opened their home to them after Irma unfortunately left them homeless.
A 200-year-old oak tree behind Cornett’s home uprooted during the storm and landed straight on top of her house. Thankfully, everyone was safe, but the house? Destroyed.
“The tree came down at 1:30 a.m., so we ran to our closet and crouched and huddled in there,” Cornett said. “The roof was coming down around us, so we didn’t know how to get out.”
Around 6:30 a.m., when the storm started to die down, the Macgregor family came to the rescue: Gregor Macgregor looked around the house, found the clearest exit and helped the family of five get out of the house safely. His wife Ramelle then opened their home to the Cornett family.
“Fortunately, she was there and her family took us in,” Cornett said. “We even went to her mother’s house down the street that had a generator. We can’t thank them enough.”
Although Irma brought destruction to the community, it wasn’t torn apart. According to Andrew Lockwood, it brought the community closer together.
Lockwood is a husband and the father of a seven-month-old baby. After Irma hit, Lockwood went straight to doing yard work. His home did not have any major damage, but that didn’t stop him from putting himself in other people’s shoes.
Lockwood owns a huge chainsaw that he barely got to use in College Park since his move from Georgia two years ago. Seeing his neighbors struggle with hacksaws while trying to cut limbs off trees, he knew he had the tools and attitude to help.
He and his chainsaw went house to house helping his neighbors cut down limbs and even a couple of trees.
“This was probably the one time since we moved here that everyone was outside of their house,” Lockwood said. “It was a good sense of community. I got to have good conversations with people and even meet people I had never met yet.”
Lockwood wasn’t the only resident racing to help without being asked.
Tamara Bereza believes she lives among angels on Par Street.
Bereza evacuated the area during the storm to minimize the fears her six-year-old daughter had about Irma. Little did Bereza know her house would be affected by flooding from the hurricane. She was even more surprised that her neighbors took such immediate action.
The Radcliff and Rice families noticed first thing in the morning that Bereza’s backyard and part of her home was flooding. Instead of calling Bereza to inform her of the problem, they tackled it head-on — even before they started repairs on their own houses.
The Radcliff family had taken in the Rices, a family of five who evacuated from Key West. This family believed they lost their house yet still managed to help Bereza save hers.
According to Bereza, the families used water pumps and brooms to eliminate a couple of feet of standing water. They also hooked up their generators to fans to try to save the house’s drywall.
Bereza pulled up to her driveway and saw her neighbors — and people she didn’t even know — trying to save her house.
“I am so very thankful and blessed to live amongst such angels,” Bereza said. “I love my neighbors and College Park. I plan on paying it forward.”
Residents fill local food pantry
One of the most stressful things to do when preparing for a hurricane is trying to find food and water. Irma managed to wipe local shelves clean before the storm even reached the Keys. One Heart for Women and Children was close to running out of food and desperately needed donations from the community.
One Heart for Women and Children works to provide for families as they overcome the hardships of life. The nonprofit organization offers food, school supplies, clothing and even household items for families in need. It also offers life skills classes and conducts special projects such as home renovations.
Stephanie Bowman, One Heart’s founder, worried that the organization would run out of food for the families in the community. “We had no food to give any families, until someone put an ad out Tuesday morning,” she said.
The community came through; 47 families from College Park alone arrived with donations. Two schools also sent supplies, and the organization reached out to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which agreed to donate five pallets of water and MREs (meals ready to eat).
“It has been amazing how the College Park community has come together,” Bowman said.
Bowman expressed gratitude for her board of directors, who have been helping to pass out food and reach out to the community for more donations.
The organization is still looking for more donations and volunteers to help. On average, they serve 3,000 clients per month, so this help is always appreciated.
“We can feed a family breakfast, lunch and dinner for just $1.80,” Bowman said.
For questions about volunteering or donating to One Heart for Women and Children, contact Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Businesses stepped up to show support
The Tap Room at Dubsdread has been serving Orlando since 2001, and after the hurricane struck, the restaurant did its part to give back to the community.
“The idea came to me reading a post about how so many of the out of state linemen were sleeping in their trucks in mall parking lots, and that someone should take them food,” said owner Steve Gunter. “I thought, I can do even better than that!”
Gunter decided his restaurant would take care of the linemen and first responders who were working to get the power back on and the streets cleared in College Park. The Tap Room gave them lunch for free.
“We estimate that we served about 325 – 350 people,” Gunter said.
Even as the lunch shift began, crews were enjoying their meals and feeling very grateful toward the restaurant and its staff.
Stanley Windom, who is with the City of Orlando’s Streets and Stormwater Division, said, “It’s put a lot of stress on our employees, being away from their families.”
“[The responders] were so unbelievably over the top gracious and thankful that it made me wish more could be done,” Gunter said. “We will react next time the moment power comes back on.”
The Tap Room wasn’t the only restaurant aware that linemen were camping out in mall parking lots. The Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen, a scratch kitchen that began in 2015, heard about their story as well.
“We heard about hundreds of linemen camping in the parking lot at the Oviedo Mall, working on no sleep,” said Julie Casey, owner of the restaurant. “We heard some were being treated badly by angry residents, and many just munching on snacks rather than leaving their posts. We wanted to bring them a hot meal.”
Casey was directed to a linemen supervisor by her friend, Molly Nichols. The supervisor then texted Casey the addresses of where the linemen were staying, so she — and 20 to 30 volunteers — could deliver their popular macaroni and cheese.
The restaurant estimates that they served linemen 500 – 600 meals the weekend following the hurricane.
Aside from food banks and other companies that donated to families, there were other businesses reached out to the community as well.
The Mosaic Hair Studio and Blowout Bar offered free blowouts and washes for those who were without power. A few people come in for washes, but most came for blowouts since they couldn’t dry their hair at their own houses.
The hair studio also held a fundraiser Sunday, September 17, for SPCA organizations in Houston and the Florida Keys. The fundraiser consisted of blowouts, food, drinks and raffle prizes.