OBSERVED: Ian no match for community’s compassion

Throughout my career in Florida news, I’ve covered my share of storms: Gabrielle just days after 9/11; 2004’s four-storm fiasco; of course 2017’s Hurricane Irma; and now Hurricane Ian.


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In our Hurricane Ian coverage, you’ll find images of destruction: toppled trees, downed power lines, flooded streets. You’ve likely driven down roads covered in a carpet of debris —and maybe even had to navigate your way through a few nasty days without power.

Throughout my career in Florida news, I’ve covered my share of storms: Gabrielle just days after 9/11; 2004’s four-storm fiasco; of course 2017’s Hurricane Irma; and now Hurricane Ian. I’ve seen plenty of devastation, of course.

But it’s not what I remember. 

Images and anecdotes of heroism, compassion, encouragement and the unyielding power of decency and kindness in the face of tragic circumstances never cease to amaze me. And just like the aftermath of previous storms, they were plentiful this week.

For me, the first came in the morning hours of Thursday, Sept. 29. As I headed out to survey and photograph damage, I turned onto Wild Myrtle Court in Windermere. Two houses in, a tree had been toppled, taking out power to the entire block with it. 

Are you from the power company? a voice called out to me as I snapped photos.

No, sorry, I responded. I’m just with the Observer covering the storm.

So, do you want to see a dock completely underwater? 

Christine and Timothy Bryan then led me to their backyard, where their dock barely peeked out from the surface of the water.

As I was leaving, Christine brought me a bag of avocados. The storm had done some natural harvesting, and she had plenty to spare.

Facing their own crisis — no power, a downed tree, a sunken dock — the Bryans were in great spirits. And they were quick to share their unexpected avocado bounty with a stranger who had just appeared with a camera. A small gesture, but consider my heart warmed.

Later that day, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office shared photos I will never forget. Although most of West Orange and Southwest Orange were spared from significant damage, the Orlo Vista neighborhood — just east of our coverage area — wasn’t so lucky. In the same moments I was receiving avocados from the Bryans, the OCSO Emergency Response Team was evacuating Orlo Vista residents after their neighborhood suffered significant flooding.

The photos are as dramatic as they come — with officers trudging through feet of murky, oily water to get to the homes. There’s one of an officer carrying a dog to safety; another of a group hoisting a man into their rescue vehicle.

But my favorite image is a rescued resident in mid-laugh as he sits across from three officers — also smiling — in the rescue vehicle. I like to imagine that all hearts are full in that moment. That goodness and kindness led to this moment. That the circumstances — no matter how dramatically they breach your home — are no match for what we can do together.

Even before the storm arrived, Windermere High Band Director Rob Darragh was called to duty with the U.S. Army National Guard and has been assisting with relief efforts ever since. Still, he’s made sure to communicate assignments to his marching band students through social media.

And just this week, we learned Horizon West’s Playa Pizza donated food to Matthew’s Hope to help the organization care for West Orange’s homeless residents. Amazing stuff. Simply amazing.

In the days and weeks that follow, there will be challenges. But our community has faced challenges before, and we’ve emerged stronger. We will do so again.

To those who have so selflessly given their time and resources: Thank you for being the heroes we need in this time. 

To those who need help: Ask! If you don’t know who to ask, let me know — [email protected]. We’ll make a connection.

Stay strong, West Orange. We got this.

 

author

Michael Eng

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