Adventure, exploration, and humility in the Wake of Hurricane Irma
We went to give. In the end, we gained.
Captain Ian sat watching civilian rescue crews packing up any supplies and skills they had to help others in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. The realization hit him that the WNA team had both the skills and resources to be able to respond quickly and help in situations just like this. Why wasn't that something that we were doing?
Barely had we begun to put the idea in place that WNA could have a branch of outreach and community support when news of Hurricane Irma reached us. Despite being 700 miles away in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the team jumped into action. Putting our barely formed plans into place, we packed the truck with water and fuel, hooked up the rescue boat and trailer, and asked the community for help.
The response we received was amazing. People from all over saw what we were doing and jumped at the chance to help. Local grocery stores contributed water and supplies, bystanders literally ran up to the truck to contribute what they could, and friends and family donated to the cause. In less time than we thought possible, we had the supplies and support necessary to head south and try to make a difference.
We reached south Florida the day after Irma left. Despite everything we had done prior to our arrival, nothing could have prepared us for the destruction that we encountered. Days were spent just trying to make sure that people had the shelter and water they needed to wait for more long term help. Being some of the only civilians allowed into the Florida Keys so soon after the storm, we concentrated on making sure that concerned family members on the mainland could contact their loved ones and know they were safe. Many of these days had happy endings. Sometimes, however, we could not give the families the reassurance they were looking for.
As FEMA and the Red-Cross moved in and began distributing food and water to land-based residents, we concentrated our efforts on the waterways. Our jet-drive rescue boat allowed us to explore areas that prop-boats couldn't get to. We cleared waterways and marked sunken vessels and debris with orange spray-painted water bottles. Having access to the water showed us just how far the destruction continued. We knew we were working in the right place.
As the days turned into weeks and residents and business owners were allowed to return to the Keys, we refocused our efforts yet again. Now that all immediate danger was identified and people had access to the supplies and shelter that they needed, it was time to rebuild. We brought out the chainsaws and cleared debris, moved loads of supplies, tools, and fuel to the crews that needed it, and worked with individuals to get their lives and homes back together again.
After 9 weeks of destruction, debris, thirsty hard work, hot days, hard sleeping spots, late nights, early mornings, and the absolute privilege of seeing all our efforts pay off, we knew it was time to leave the Keys and return to our own adventure. What we left behind, however, was much more than the supplies and hard work we brought with us. We left behind places we had come to call home, people we had come to call friends, and a community that made us feel like the ones gaining something.
During our time in the Florida Keys, we saw more destruction than we ever thought possible. What impacted us even more, however, was the resilience and strength that the residents showed. It was impossible to keep their spirits down. No matter what had been thrown at them, no matter how torn apart their lives, everyone moved forward with rebuilding and starting over. "Keys Strong" became the mantra of the rebuild and the actions behind it resonate with us still.
We made a recent trip back down to Marathon and saw all our friends and the progress everyone has made. It was almost surreal to see the area alive with summer tourism and open shops. Busy streets and people going about their lives like Irma had never happened. The scars were still there, however, if you looked closely enough. Buildings closed down due to irreparable damage, boats missing from the mooring field, and temporary housing made permanent. Despite it all, we have never seen a community respond so strongly to adversity and this experience will stick with us forever. We came to the Florida Keys hoping to help and teach others, but instead we were the ones who learned something that we will never forget. Thank you Florida Keys for showing us what it truly means to be #keysstrong.