The Salvation Army activates comprehensive response in wake of devastating impact left by Hurricane Ian
After intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Ian made landfall on September 28 near Cayo Costa in southwestern Florida. Upon its arrival to the United States, Ian was a Category 4 hurricane, just short of a Category 5 listing as the strongest classification on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. With wind speeds measured at approximately 150 miles per hour, Hurricane Ian was the fifth-most powerful storm to strike the United States, and the slow-moving storm poured water across Florida before strengthening again to make an additional landfall on the coast of South Carolina.
Ian left catastrophic damage in its wake, including more than 130 reported deaths from its impact. More than four million individuals reported power outages in the Southeast, with early estimates ranging from $30 billion to $60 million in overall damages. As meteorologists forecasted what projected to be an extremely strong storm, The Salvation Army was on guard, preparing a potential emergency disaster response, and hundreds and thousands of officers, employees, volunteers, soldiers, and partners deployed in earnest to serve those in need.
“Hurricane Ian will be remembered as one of Florida’s worst disasters,” said Jeff Jellets, territorial disaster coordinator for The Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory. “Damages stretch from the southwest coast of Florida across the state as far east as St. John’s and Volusia counties. More than 40 Salvation Army feeding units from six states are deployed and even at this early stage, more than 100,000 meals have been served. In addition to our disaster teams operating in the hardest hit areas—Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, Naples and Venice—local corps across the state are also out feeding, distributing clean-up kits, and providing emotional and spiritual care.”
The Salvation Army meticulously planned its response, staging canteens and other equipment for immediate dispersal after the storm exited the affected areas. With the response coming directly on the heels of a relief effort following Hurricane Fiona, challenges arose, but incident commands were immediately established with feeding, emotional and spiritual care, and willing hearts.
Across the state of Florida, stories began to circulate on the work of The Salvation Army. In Naples, Captains Ben and Annie Bridges, corps officers, were unable to reach the corps building and, in their stead, Roger and Ada Morales offered to stand guard and maintain order at the facility during Ian’s height. Individuals sought refuge within the corps walls, with the Morales’ sleeping at the corps, utilizing available cots, and bringing a hopeful and God-driven spirit to the proceedings.
“One of the most beautiful things that came out of this was that everyone seeking shelter had an attitude of gratitude,” Ada said. “There was no complaining, yelling or frustration.”
“It was a beautiful night despite all the pain and aggravation. Despite losing many things and despite a terrible situation, there were grateful hearts and harmony, which was beautiful to see.”
In Port Charlotte, an assisted living facility, Charlotte Towers, was unable to keep generators running, leaving seniors vulnerable due to elevator challenges and the immobility of some housed at the center. Salvation Army workers provided hot meals, dry meals, and bottles of water, with volunteers scaling the stairs to hand deliver the nourishment.
The Salvation Army also established a feeding location in a shopping center parking lot in Punta Gorda, aiming to maximize service delivery for those who needed it. Along the way, an environment of community materialized, with Major Serge LaLanne offering a pen and paper to a recipient upon request to give thanks for what transpired. Major LaLanne then placed the pad on a table, continuing service, before realizing that the pad was then filled with impromptu goodwill messages from others receiving help.
“Thank you for your generosity and service to our community,” wrote Paul and Beth. “Thank God for people like you.”
“Thank you so much,” wrote Cindy. “You don’t know what this means to someone who can’t even get into their house.”
On-duty officers and staff from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office received assistance from The Salvation Army as they were deployed to serve others. In addition to active duty in emergency disaster management, three staffers lost homes to the storm.
“Thank you so much,” said retired deputy Lynn Nix. “Our staff is so appreciative. We do 12 days on and 12 days off… The Salvation Army has been amazing. We are sure going to miss you guys when you’re done.”
On Saturday, October 8, a Golden Labrador Retriever named Dunkin toured homes near Ft. Myers, spending time with survivors as they tended to condominiums that suffered from storm damage. Dunkin arrived via a partnership with Canines 4 Christ, and the service dogs go through extensive training to be certified in crisis response therapy through the American Kennel Club. Dunkin interacted with approximately 40 survivors.
“The mission of Canines 4 Christ is to share the love of Jesus Christ in times of despair through the dog,” said Tina Reeder, Dunkin’s handler and an ordained chaplain. “People stop and pet the dog, and it gives us an opportunity to talk and pray with them.”
“Animals are accepting of everyone, and dogs typically remind people of a better time in their lives,” said Bobby Martin, who led the emotional and spiritual care of The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Team in Fort Myers. “The focus of the person is instantly moved to the dog and no longer on their current circumstances.”
Salvation Army units also sustained considerable damage from Ian’s wrath. In North Port, a service center was wholly destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. The Port Charlotte Corps suffered significant damage to its roof and fence, with notable tree and flood damage at the Venice Corps, along with roof leaks in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Sanford, and others.
“Just like everyone else in southwest Florida, we’ve been deeply impacted by the damaging effects of Hurricane Ian,” said Lt. Colonel Michele Matthews. “But these are our neighbors, and this is what we are called to do, so we have responded with the full resources of The Salvation Army.”
The Salvation Army also could not serve at maximum capacity without the generous assistance of myriad partners. The Salvation Army utilized Polaris off-road vehicles to distribute meals to individuals and families not accessible to canteen units and larger vehicles.
“One of the Army’s great strengths is its ability to be flexible,” said Captain Jeremy Mockabee, chief of operations for the Port Charlotte incident command team and corps officer in Lakeland, Florida. “This is never more prevalent than in times of crisis. We adapt, even in our vehicle response. The Polaris meets a specific need. Its size, speed, and versatility make it almost essential in meeting needs in places our other, larger vehicles would not be able to navigate.”
The Walmart Foundation committed $300,000 to The Salvation Army, with $150,000 dedicated to Hurricane Ian relief in support of feeding and hydration efforts. Walmart also offered space in parking lots through the affected areas to allow canteens to set up and provide meal service.
“We are grateful to the Salvation Army teams who quickly mobilized to provide much needed resources and services for the communities impacted by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Fiona,” said Brooks Nelson, senior manager, disaster response and preparedness for Walmart. “We are proud to work side-by-side to serve the communities impacted.”
Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, wife of Governor Ron DeSantis, also visited a food distribution site in Venice, thanking The Salvation Army and its workers for the work being done.
“There are a lot of hardworking people on the ground right now, and they will continue to be,” Jellets said. “From our disaster volunteers to officers to staff, the Florida Division has been absolutely committed to this work and we’ve had support not just from across the South, but the Eastern Territory, Central Territory, and National Headquarters. We’ve also had amazing partners and donors, such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Mercy Chefs, PepsiCo, and Midwest Food Bank who have helped with food, as well as Baby2Baby with infant supplies; UPS, FedEx and Delta Airlines who have donated shipping and air travel, and Polaris UTV for off-road vehicles which have given us access into some of the hardest hit communities.”
Through October 24, The Salvation Army served 365,465 meals, 239,050 drinks, and 141,734 snacks, with 65,879 hours of active service, and 15,589 emotional and spiritual care contacts across the state of Florida, with those numbers sure to grow. The Salvation Army plans to continue its response as long as is required, with continued coordination with partners, as well as federal, state, and local officials. Financial donations are encouraged at help.salvationarmy.org or 1-800-SAL-ARMY.
“Disaster responses are both a sprint and a marathon,” said Jelletts. “Right now, we are in the sprint – getting food, water and other emergency supplies out to people as quickly as possible. But The Salvation Army never leaves these local communities. We will transition to recovery. What exactly that will look like is hard to say right now, but The Salvation Army will be there to help impacted families meet long-term needs through our corps and our disaster recovery programs.”
Maria Matheus, Jay Pritchard, Michelle Hartfield, Dan Furry, Eric Short, and Tawny Cowen-Zanders contributed to this report.