Floridians are coming together to help communities in the southwestern part of the state recover after Hurricane Ian decimated them. The Category 4 storm, which is the fifth strongest storm to ever hit the U.S., made landfall on Sep. 28 in Cayo Costa near Fort Myers and Cape Coral. As of Tuesday, Oct. 11, at least 120 people have died because of Hurricane Ian, and 55 of these deaths were in Lee County, which comprises Fort Myers and Cape Coral.
Before the storm even hit the coast, The Smile Trust, a nonprofit organization that aids houseless people and works toward fixing food insecurities, mobilized their Community Emergency Operations Center (CEOC) in Miami to begin collecting donations for the most impacted communities.
“We always like to be able to quickly respond and get people the services that they need,” said Im’Unique Hyler, administrative assistant for The Smile Trust. “We know that it takes government services and other large national organizations more time to get there. So we try to make sure that we can meet [the community’s] needs as quickly as possible.”
The Smile Trust, whose slogan is “We are our own first responders,” reached out to community partners in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Naples to determine the biggest needs. As of Friday, Sept. 30, they had sent at least two trucks filled with pallets of water, diapers, hygiene supplies, cleaning products, food, a generator, and other necessities to Naples and Immokalee, Florida, where 40% of residents were left without power across Collier County.
The Smile Trust partners with community organizations and sets up hubs in cities that need aid. Sometimes that means servicing the community by setting up a tent and distributing food, while other times, that means supplying a forklift and pallets. The Smile Trust sends its truck to organizations that can break down the materials and distribute them into the community with the help of smaller local organizations.
Most recently, The Smile Trust mobilized its CEOC to assist during the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis. Its first call to action took place in February 2021, when devastating winter storms left many Texans without power in frigid temperatures.
“This pattern of systemic neglect and state-sanctioned violence toward Black and brown communities underscores how crucial it is for our communities to have a say in how resources are allocated in the aftermath of storms and what neighborhoods are prioritized for storm preparedness,” says a statement on The Smile Trust website. “Ending these patterns of neglect by shifting power and resources to impacted communities is a central goal of the movement for climate justice.”
The Smile Trust is calling on community volunteers to help improve its response time and help pack pallets, load goods on trucks, and make wellness phone calls. The organization will accept physical donations continuously until it “meets the needs of the people who need us,” said Hyler. It also accepts monetary donations year round to make sure it can mobilize immediately when there is a need.
Triangle Mutual Aid, which works with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a national grassroots organization that provides support for survivors of disasters, also set up a supply drive to support communities across southwest Florida. Right now, they are collecting donations of heavy duty tarps, roofing nails, contractor bags, other construction materials, mosquito spray, and more.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers has also mobilized over $11,000 in donations for Hurricane Ian relief efforts. Its partner, Jesus the Worker Parish, was able to purchase and distribute urgently needed supplies to over 2,000 families in Fort Myers.
Eileen Connolly-Keesler, the CEO of Collier Community Foundation, said they have mobilized the Collier Comes Together Hurricane Relief Fund to raise money and put it directly into the community’s hands so they can start rebuilding the city. Immediate needs include food and cleaning supplies, but Connolly-Keesler says the most important need is cash.
“We have a lot of people unemployed right now because restaurants are closed because of the flooding,” Connolly-Keesler said. “We need to somehow get them funds to be able to support their families.”
Connolly-Keesler said cleaning is especially important in the immediate aftermath of a flooding event because houses drenched in water will foster rapid mold development. If not quickly addressed, mold growth can continue to damage infrastructure long after the storm has passed and lead to short- and long-term health risks.
So far, the Collier Community Foundation has raised $800,000. “It’s fabulous, but it is a drop in the bucket, unfortunately,” said Connolly-Keesler. “As we look at the region, the five counties, we’re probably going to need a billion dollars to help people rebuild. Some people lost all of it—everything in their house, their clothes, their furniture. Right now we need money in all of our communities. That’s the only way we’re gonna rebuild.”
In Fort Myers, where Fort Myers Beach was all but destroyed after the storm surge reached 15 feet and drowned the coastal beach town, building back will be no easy feat. According to a New York Times aerial survey of Fort Myers Beach, nearly 400 buildings were severely damaged or destroyed in just the northern portion of the barrier island. In central Florida’s Seminole County, officials counted at least 5,200 homes with damage, and in Key West, about 200 people were displaced by the storm.
“The best we can do is to move people out of shelters,” said Terry Mazany, the chief collaboration officer for Collaboratory, a Fort Myers-based organization. “They need rebuilding. This will be challenging because some areas have now been scoured clean and just the basic infrastructure will have to be rebuilt first.”
Mazany said unfortunately, there are no instant solutions to the devastation. Florida was already facing an affordable housing crisis and has been called the least affordable state to live in the country. Now, displaced residents will be plunged into another layer of housing limbo.
“You can probably take note of previous long, large-scale disasters from Katrina and Harvey to see how slow that recovery process is,” said Mazany. “We have tens of thousands of residents who lost their livelihoods, who can’t work, who lost their homes, their belongings. There’s just not the distribution system to try to help somebody restock a refrigerator that now doesn’t exist, or hasn’t had power.”
Mazany said monetary donations are currently the best way to help get cash into people’s pockets so they can buy essentials, and to trust that people know what they need most to rebuild their lives.
“This is going to go on for a while,” Mazany said. “This is not the sort of disaster that is going to be resolved in a week. We’re looking at months and months to come.”