FGCU Baseball Pitches In For Hurricane Ian ReliefFeatures
There was a stove stuck in a stairwell.
A house was so flooded that the family car was floating in the garage.
The stench — because there were dead animals and garbage scattered just about everywhere on the streets — was awful, too.
Those were just some of the sights and smells left behind by Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm which struck the west coast of Florida – specifically the Fort Myers area – on Sept. 28.
The baseball team that represents Fort Myers — the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles — spent several long days helping the community clean up from the aforementioned storm that took the lives of 157 people.
Of those fatalities, 146 occurred in Florida, five each in Cuba and North Carolina and one in Virginia.
Fort Myers was the hardest-hit area, and the Eagles players responded by grabbing shovels, wheelbarrows and sledgehammers, going from house to house in order to help their neighbors in need.
“I’m going to try not to get emotional,” Eagles coach Dave Tollett said when asked to talk about the hurricane that devastated Fort Myers.
“But whether we win 45 games this coming season or just 25, this club will always have a special place in my heart for what these players did in the community.”
Tollett said some houses were almost completely gone – just a slab remained because the damage done by the 150 mph winds and the 21 inches of rain was that severe.
Ian’s landfall wind speed in Florida is tied for the fifth-strongest on record in the U.S. The ocean water rose 12 feet, which is the highest ever reported in Fort Myers.
In all, 2.7 million Floridians lost power, and there has been more than $60 billion in insured losses in the state, including the Red Coconut Mobile Home Park on Fort Myers Beach, which was completely washed away.
Aside from all the numbers, Ian took a toll on the people of Fort Myers, particularly west of the Tamiami Trail.
“I remember seeing this 84-year-old woman – her name was Peaches,” Tollett said. “She was sitting on her cooler, crying. Everything she had was gone. She was distraught.
“Once we got to Peaches, we stayed with her, moving furniture, cleaning up and doing whatever she needed. We brought her a little bit of comfort in the middle of a very sad situation.”
Tollett said his team would start its volunteer days at 8 a.m. and finish at 5:30 p.m. Grateful restaurant owners at Nino’s and Mario’s fed the players for free.
In addition, more than 400 first responders slept on cots in the Eagles’ gym.
As a show of gratitude for those first responders, Tollett arranged for the Oct. 5 UCF-SMU Wednesday night college football game to played on the giant scoreboard on the Eagles baseball field.
At one point, more than 70 first responders played a Wiffle ball game on the Eagles’ field, batting from second base toward the dugouts, which served as home run fences.
“Those first responders left their families for 14 days to help our community,” Tollett said. “It was important that they got a chance to unwind and have a bit of fun at night.
“They also talked to our kids. They told stories of the work they did in earthquake relief in Haiti, for example. … We are very appreciative to the first responders.”
Tollett said Hurricane Ian served as a life lesson for his players.
“I had a parent of one of my players tell me, ‘Coach, my son learned more about life in the past seven days than he did in his previous years in college or high school,” Tollett said.
“When we went out to help, we were often more than an hour late to the house we were going to because people would stop us, asking for help.
“It was a great learning experience for our players. I think they took great pride in helping others.”
Brian Ellis, the Eagles’ star center fielder and team captain, said he witnessed many surreal scenes.
He saw the roof of a mobile home completely torn off. He saw boats in the middle of the street, one on top of another. He saw trees down all over the place.
“But the people we met, for the most part, had positive attitudes,” Ellis said. “Most of them had lost everything, but they still had smiles on their faces.
“We were happy we could do what little we did to make a difference in their lives.”
Ellis said a lot of teamwork was involved.
“After the first day, everyone found out what they are good at,” Ellis said. “We had to (temporarily) stop fall practices, but I was not worried about baseball. Our priority was helping our community.
“As far as baseball, I’m confident we will be ready by the time spring comes.”
Eagles infielder Alejandro Figueredo said it felt good to help.
He also said the volunteer work bonded the baseball team.
“We got together and made a plan,” Figueredo said. “We organized ourselves, and, if we can do it in that type of environment, we should be great on the baseball field.”
The whole Eagles team — about 36 players strong — participated in the community cleanup, and at times they split up into three groups. Each group took a house and did what was needed.
“My heart hurt for everyone affected by Hurricane Ian,” Eagles pitcher Mason Miller said. “To be able to help those in need was the biggest eye-opening experience I’ve ever had.
“Everyone we helped was so emotionally strong. They looked at everything in a positive light. But it was devastating to see five or six feet of water in some of the houses.”
Ellis said the drywall was soaked in many of those homes. To prevent mold, they used those sledgehammers to tear down about one or two feet above the water line, which often meant swinging right up to the ceiling.
“Everything had to be gutted to let it dry out so that it can be put back together,” Ellis said. “I had never done a demolition like that.
“We also tore up carpets, removed furniture. Whatever we could do to help.”
After a while, Ellis said, word got out to the people in the neighborhoods the Eagles were helping.
Those people starting asking the Eagles baseball players to come to their homes.
The Eagles were happy to oblige.
“This is my sixth year going to school here in Fort Myers,” said Ellis, who is originally from Orlando, Florida. “I consider Fort Myers my home, and it was emotional for me and a lot of my teammates to see all the people affected by the hurricane.
“Anything I can do to help this community means a lot to me … because this community means a lot to me.”