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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Merrill

What will Ft. Myers’ post-Hurricane story be?

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

September 28

Last week, as I worked from my home office in Baltimore, I watched in horror as Hurricane Ian slammed the Florida coast. I’d planned on taking the next week off, but, as I watched the devastation play out in southwest Florida, I decided to swap vacation for volunteer work. I signed up to volunteer with World Central Kitchen.

I’d seen World Central Kitchen step up during emergencies before. In my former role as an Assistant Principal in Baltimore City Public Schools, I helped create a COVID-19 emergency meal program through a partnership with the Maryland Food Bank and World Central Kitchen. During the initial building shutdown in 2020, we served 37,000 meals over the first 12 weeks of the pandemic. Henderson-Hopkins has now served more than 1 million pounds of food to our neighbors since the pandemic began. I was so impressed with World Central Kitchen’s operation and grateful for their support that I knew I wanted to pay it forward someday.

This week I got that chance.

October 3

I flew down from Baltimore to Tampa and rented a minivan that would serve as my transportation and temporary home. Before heading to my volunteer post, I met up with a local friend and former Baltimore City Public Schools district office colleague, Jenn Dull.

Jenn, now the Chief Strategy and Impact Officer for Pinellas County Schools, shared that Pinellas County was spared the worst of the storm, and were able to re-open schools by Monday.

Knowing how lucky they’d been to avoid the worst of the disruption and damage of the storm, they prepared to send their maintenance and operations teams down to help the relief efforts in Lee County, which includes Ft. Myers. Lee County got absolutely rocked by Hurricane Ian. Most of Ft. Myers is still without water and power, and schools are closed for the foreseeable future.

I asked Jenn what a district can do in the immediate aftermath of a situation like this. She shared that the hierarchy of needs for the entire community include safety, shelter, food, and water. A district’s response has to address these needs – providing meals, water, and supplies; providing emergency shelters; making damaged buildings safe to operate again; and providing mental health resources.

Unlike during COVID, we can’t hand out laptops and hotspots and switch to learning online right away. Not only are students unable to connect without electricity, most are still struggling to access basic necessities like clean water, shelter, and food. Students and families are trying to stay alive right now.

October 4

On my first day of volunteering in Lee County, I met volunteers from all over– some from Ft. Myers and others from as far as California and Kansas who, like me, had flown in to help out.

I greeted residents as they drove up and learned some of their stories.

One man grabbed my hands and cried into them as he told me about losing everything he owned at his place in Ft. Myers Beach.

I talked to a teacher in Lee County who told me about the newly homeless students from Sanibel Island she was now sheltering in her house. She’d come to pick up meals for her “home school cafeteria.”

I met a mother with three kids who told me that she had no idea when or how her children’s schools would reopen. She was just trying to keep her family alive and well.

The path forward

Lee County Schools superintendent Christopher Bernier shared this week that his focus right now is on safety, sensitivity, and effectiveness. As he works with district and county officials to reopen schools, I’m sure he is thinking through some big questions about the path forward:

  • How can we get in touch with every family to check on them and understand what services we can provide them right now?

  • How can we provide work time for teachers and school based administrators to develop a social emotional support plan for re-entry before students return to the building?

  • How can we communicate our plan for reopening to families in a way that is clear and sensitive to the fact that many of our families are now spread throughout the country?

  • How can we get a sense of how many families plan to come back this school year versus how many will relocate somewhere else long-term?

  • Will we offer a virtual option to families who have relocated elsewhere and have no home to come back to in Lee County?

  • As we rebuild, how can we create more affordable housing in order to help draw more families with school aged children to our district?

  • And how can we come back even better and even stronger than we were before?

This is a huge lift. There’s so much work to be done to get kids back in school down here. I don’t know how long it will be. But I do know that at least for this week, I’m here, and thanks to World Central Kitchen, I’m helping do what little I can to support the children and families of Lee County while we wait for power and water to get back on and for schools to reopen.

How to help

If you are looking for organizations to support, I’ve seen first hand the incredible work that World Central Kitchen and the Cajun Navy are doing down here on the ground. And the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools is raising money to support their students, families, and educators. I hope you’ll join me in doing what you can to support our neighbors in Lee County, Florida as they face a long road to recovery.

The contents of this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect any positions of World Central Kitchen, Pinellas County Schools, or Lee County Schools.

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