On September 10th 2017, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean made landfall on the paradise coast, but President and CEO of the NCH healthcare system, Dr. Allen Weiss and his staff, refused to close their doors.
Dr. Weiss explained, “We had the eye of the hurricane go over both of our hospitals late in the day Sunday afternoon. We never closed. We’ve been open since 1955. We had two sets of everyone in both hospitals. We were literally capable of doing open hear surgery on Sunday afternoon with two cardiac surgeons. We did 30 necessary surgeries, treated 1,450 folks in the emergency room, and we were capable of doing anything at anytime during the storm from delivering a baby to open heart surgery.”
Despite the massive preparation, Hurricane Irma destroyed many lives, homes, and business, but it wasn’t long before Southwest Florida came together and began rebuilding.
As the owners and operators of the visitor channel in over 30 hotels from Marco Island to Bonita springs, we attended the Collier County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau meeting where leaders of our tourism industry met to discuss a recovery plan and our cameras were rolling. After the meeting we interviewed CVB Executive Director Jack Wert about his primary objective... getting the word out that the Paradise Coast is clear and recovering fast.
“Our first job is to get the word out to the world that the Paradise Coast is clear. We did get hit, but we are recovering fast. Hotels are coming back online very quickly. We think that by the first of October everyone should be up and ready to accept guests. The beaches are being cleaned as we speak from the debris the storm brought us. Power is being restored, pretty much across the board. Water quality is fine; the beaches are open for business. We just want to get that early word out that we are willing and ready to accept and welcome all of the guests that love the Florida’s Paradise Coast.”
One of the reasons so many of those guests love the paradise coast is the unique attractions we have such as the Naples Botanical Garden a long time client and friend of Paradise Coast TV. Unfortunately the gardens were devastated by the storm and the rebuilding process was and still is daunting. The Botanical Garden called us and asked if we would shoot footage of the destruction and initial stages of recovery for a documentary. We were fortunate enough to be able to shoot an interview with CEO Donna McGinnis while touring the gardens. She described her and her staff’s experience of dealing with the destruction caused by Irma.
“It was pretty raw. We have a lot of our staff who grew these plants from seeds and they remember planting those trees and they have worked so hard to build this over the last 8 years. You kind of saw almost the stages of grief. There was just a big sense of loss that sat there for a while as we got the initial debris out of the way so we could see what we were dealing with. It took probably four or five days before you could see the energy come back and sort of that, we can do this, because it was just so devastating.”
That “we can do this” attitude proved to be a shining example of what Jack Wert meant when he said that the Paradise Coast is recovering fast. Within only a few weeks, with the help of staff and volunteers from not only our community, but all over the county, the Naples Botanical garden miraculously reopened it’s doors to guests. At the staff appreciation party on October 1st, we recorded Donna as she thanked her team and their families for pulling off the impossible.
“We had a lot of long hours and long days here and we just wanted to say thank you so much. We wanted to show you what it looked like because none of us thought that it could look this good 3 weeks later.”
Other community leaders stepped up to do their part as well. We brought our crew over to Moura Lebanese Restaurant in Naples to interview our friend and owner of our favorite weekly lunch spot, Nabil Bassil about his efforts to donate meals to first responders, the Immokalee Shelter, and those impacted in Bonita Springs.
“Right after the hurricane we had 1,000 plus meals sent out to first responders, 350 to Immokalee Shelters, and 150 to Bonita.”
Bonita Springs was one of the areas most impacted by Irma due to flooding from the Imperial River. We were contacted by Keller Williams Realty to capture footage of their staff and volunteers who put their boots on the ground and got their hands dirty in order to help those whose homes were completely destroyed by the storm. Angie Parker the Bonita Springs Market Center team leader explained to our producers why giving back is so central to the culture of Keller Williams.
“I mean, yes we all have businesses to run, yes we have things that we have to do, but when you go in here and you talk to these people who can’t make a decision they are so overwhelmed about what needs to be done next or they have absolutely nothing left – I mean nothing but the clothes they have – it touches your heart. To know that our company stands for that culture and absolutely stands behind it 100%... that means everything.”
Similar to Bonita Springs, Immokalee, Everglades City, Chokoloskee, Plantation Island, Copeland, Goodland, and Riverpark were among the most desolated areas on the Paradise Coast. Fortunately, Commissioner Penny Taylor and the Collier County government are working with organizations like the Tzu Chi Foundation and Pickleball for All to organize efforts and provide aid for those who need it most. My self and our Associate Producer Nick Romary drove down into Everglades City with our cameras and spoke with Jim Ludwig, founder of Pickleball for All, who perfectly summed up the mission of the Tzu Chi Foundation and their impact on those in need.
“This group came in about a week and a half ago willing to work with our community to donate money, debit cards, blankets, wisdom, and a lot of love.”
Love. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? There’s one thing I know for sure... Southwest Florida is full of it. There are so many ways for you to get involved in the relief effort, I have trouble choosing where to start. Try simply searching the web and find an organization that speaks to you. Meals of Hope, The Naples Children’s Education Foundation, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are just a few of the amazing Charities we have worked with that are always looking for volunteers. So reach out, help your neighbors, and help the Paradise Coast get back on its feet.