Last week, in the immediate hours after Hurricane Irma, The Island Sand Paper interviewed Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, about the hundreds of telephone calls she fielded from all over the nation, as well as the general attitude of the beach following the near-catastrophe. “I am so impressed by how many people I see helping each other,” she said. But Jacki referenced only one name, “I notice in particular Joe Orlandini, who seems to be everywhere, assisting folks with sandbags and putting up screens or taking down shutters and being there for those who need to move.” In the intervening days, as neighbor helped neighbor, it was Joe’s name that came up over and again!
“It all started early in the week leading up to the storm,” Joe said when we caught up with the local realtor and developer. “I brought two loads of sand to the beach and told my guys to make sandbags. We bought a couple-thousand sandbags from Lowe’s the previous Sunday, and they literally had 30,000 in stock, but when we went back for more they were all gone! Next thing I knew I had people calling me, saying please save me 50 or 100, so we made more. After that, we did two loads of sand every day – one in the morning and another in the afternoon – and by each evening it was all totally gone, so we would replenish it the next day and just kept it going.”
Joe explained, “Once islanders started to realize we were most likely in the track of Irma, calls for help immediately shot up, with requests to put up storm shutters all over the place, and move chairs, and the hundreds of phone calls just continued nonstop, so my staff literally spent all that week preparing people for Irma.”
No Bills & Full Checks
Then came the barrage from those with no place to live. “We had one family who came back down from up north with nowhere to go, and we not only found them a place but even filled the refrigerator, so it became that kind of thing. One house had 9 people and another had 10 in there, along with three dogs. Others who were out-of-town called and donated their houses for several of our employees, so it was great to see the community come together. I am still housing around six families right now. No one will ever receive a bill from me for what we did during Irma, because everyone on this island became my neighbor.” Even though Joe’s crews basically did no work for his business for two full weeks, they all received full paychecks, “because they have families and bills to pay and the expenses of life.”
Early Sunday morning, the day Irma hit, Joe was still posting online, asking if anyone needed help, at 2:30 a.m. “That was probably my biggest mistake,” he says with a huge laugh! “Even at that late hour, I got so many calls from people who needed help with this-or-that. It was not only phenomenal but, for the first time, overwhelming – I was actually so overwhelmed with calls and texts that for a few moments I lost it! By that point, we’d already assisted with 1,000 – 2,000 requests, suddenly it seemed that the possibility of helping everyone who needed it was totally out of control!”
After the storm, “it became putting it all back – taking down shutters and cleaning yards and all sorts of things, and that is what you do on a small island like this – we take care of each other. Thursday the 14th was a perfect example. Jacki Liszak called and said she had a group of student volunteers from Florida Gulf Coast University and we put them to work. Then we hosted a lunch at the Sunset Beach Tropical Grill for the Lee County Sheriff’s deputies and Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District personnel, to thank them for all their work, under long hours, so you take care of them. Many of their own homes still had no power, so they got a nice warm meal, often for the first time that week. It all really worked out fantastic and they seemed to enjoy it.”
“I have never been through so much in a two-week period in my whole life,” Joe recollected. Of all those requests, the ones that meant the most to him “are from families with young children with no place to go. Kids need to be comfortable and have as much stability as possible. We had a family with a one-year-old who were stranded without power, and knowing we were able to take care of them is probably the most touching moment to me. We even had a call about a lost dog, and we got its picture out with a message, and it turned up nearby, so we found it!”
The OK Corral
For Joe, there is a crystal-clear line dividing the vast majority of his communications concerning the storm: “It is easy to separate: there were the people wanting to know if their place was OK, as opposed to those who first asked if we were OK, and that is one of my most noticeable and visible things that came out of all this and that I paid attention to. I have a very good friend who called me as the storm was closing in and he pleaded with me to get out, as he just did not think it was going to go well for me, and even though he owns a lot of things here, he did not ask me for anything.
“I hung up and, coincidently, his wife then called and literally said the same thing. I asked if she were sitting right next to him and she said, ‘We are not even in the same state!’ You learn friends like that are unbelievable! The fact they called about me and not their possessions tells me a lot about them. Simple things mean so much – Dan Andre came over for sandbags and he dropped off a cooler full of cold drinks, and that was a very nice, thoughtful thing that goes a long way when you are working so hard.”
As for Joe, he rode out the hurricane with members of his crew. “Several stayed with me all throughout the storm, so in a sense they helped me as much as I helped them. They are phenomenal, and you find out about that loyalty, and are thrilled to have a roomful of people like that around you.”
The Vortex of Protection!
Joe philosophized about how much he was able to help people before and after Irma: “I can tell you right now – I am at a vital part of my life, where I was able to be of immediate assistance. If someone did not have the strength or capability to care for themselves, I am glad that I was at this point where I could help. It was kind of like a few months back, when we were able to save the historic beach cottage from demolition – you take advantage of the moments presented to you and step up. But I won’t always have the capabilities of this time and this period in my life. One day, hopefully, I will be the 80-year-old who needs help and someone will be there for me. You do these things so that you live in a better and stronger community.”
Like many, Joe knows Irma could have been so much worse: “We got so lucky with Irma; we basically took a direct hit from a record-setting hurricane, and just as it was to bulldoze us it suddenly lost strength – how does that happen? I have heard for years that this island has some kind of magnetic vortex that protects us, and I am starting to believe that, as storms seem to rage to the east and west and north and south but not over us. It is like we have some sort of vortex of protection!”
He said that he believes that Irma actually reconnected neighbors with each other. “Irma brought a lot of folks out who had not talked to one-another in a while, and communication is what makes a community a community – when people who are often a little reclusive all end up talking. From such a potential disaster comes a high point of bringing people together. In a strange way, it becomes a great thing and great for the community – what could have been a disaster in the end becomes a miracle, in a sense.”
Joe learned two things from his Irma experience! “l am thankful at the end of the day our community came together to help each other out so much, because we showed we really care about one-another, and I know the next time one of these storms comes along, we have the camaraderie to stick together – we are so blessed!”