Help came from many directions after Irma

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Photo of Norm Schultz

Norm Schultz

“It's been a tough, stressful week with a lot of uncertainty and times that even bordered on fearful,” John Good told hundreds of members of the Southwest Florida Marina Industry Association.

Good is executive director of that trade group and the Tampa Bay Marine Industry Association, which cover most of the west coast of Florida, from hard-hit Naples to well north of Tampa-St. Petersburg.

“Our membership is ready to assist any dealer or marina needing help because of Irma,” said Good. “We have a broad-based membership, so we have extensive knowledge, experience and resources available, ranging from engineering, construction, docks and dredging to relationships with major fuel suppliers and many applicable city and county agencies. We are ready to assist if you are in need.”

Marinas and high-and dry operations also did a good job of keeping customers informed. Suntex Marinas provided customers with important email updates about its hurricane preparations, its rapid response team and, most important, a fast assessment of any damage after the storm passed. All of its marinas were operational again by Wednesday.

Good’s outreach was just one of so many I have seen or learned about as people from seemingly everywhere have offered help to those impacted by this history-making hurricane. Here are some other stories:

On Wednesday, as we made our way back from the Panhandle to St. Pete to assess any damage to our home, traffic was heavy heading south. Convoys of utility bucket trucks, support equipment and personnel were prominent in the traffic.

We couldn’t help but be awed and encouraged by the fleets from companies such as Entergy (trucks from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas); RES Electrical (trucks from Utah and Texas); East Bay Electric (from Alabama); Nelson Tree Service (from Ohio); and Asplund Tree Expert Co. (from Indiana).

These crews were ready for battle. Some of the trucks pulled trailers with shipping containers presumably filled with equipment and electrical supplies. Entergy’s convoy even included a service truck loaded with spare tires for the fleet. There were reports of similar convoys from New York and New Jersey moving down Florida’s east coast.

“We’re paying back Floridians for all the help they gave us after Hurricane Sandy,” one driver told a news reporter.

Then there was the “Cracker Navy,” which set out on rescue missions. A story in the Tampa Bay Times by Anastasia Dawson describes how Floridian John Steele felt led to take his 17-foot skiff to Texas and join with the “Cajun Navy” rescue flotilla of boaters created in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

When it was officially determined that Irma had Florida in its cross hairs, Steele rushed back home to Tampa to launch the “Cracker Navy” Facebook group and shared it with thousands of members of the Tampa Bay Fishing Club.

Before Irma hit, Steele had worked through about 50 background and contact forms he required from every volunteer before admitting them into the group. It’s a process he learned from the “Cajun Navy” while working rescues in Port Arthur and Orange, Texas.

“Basically, we’re checking for skills and equipment they could bring to rescue missions and making sure they aren’t sketchy,” Steele told Dawson. He also established advance relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard.

There may be debates about whether groups such as the Cracker Navy help or hinder rescue efforts. One man who knows is Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Jeremy Finney, who worked with the Cajun Navy in Texas.

“The volunteers I’ve worked with really are helping,” he said. “I don’t think nearly as many people would have been brought to a place of safety without help from these folks.”

Finney and his team rescued nearly 1,000 people in southeast Texas over 10 days, thanks to “many hands and many boats.”

Good said his southwest Florida trade group is still assessing possible damage to member businesses, but happily it appears that most escaped serious damage from the storm.

One more thing: if you’re wondering where the Cracker name comes from, here’s the answer. Because Florida is the nation’s second-largest cattle state, with huge ranches in its interior, the working cattlemen crack a whip to herd the cattle. So these real Florida natives became known as Crackers.


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