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“The Fish and Wildlife people have just been tremendous,” said school principal Jim Ragusa. “They’ve been working their butts off.” Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

A tiny town hit hard by Irma

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service task force wades into the gray mud to help families in Everglades City, Florida

Everglades City, Florida - Billy Snyder stood in mud-caked boots in his mud-caked living room, or what used to be his living room before Hurricane Irma roared in.

A man and woman wearing boots have a discussion in a room with a wet floor.
Kayla Kimmel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, talks to homeowner Billy Snyder in his ruined living room in Everglades City. “Having people come in who can get big parts of [the job] done takes a lot of the stress off,” she said. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“If we can save the stuff that’s important to us, we can just close the doors and never come back in,” he told the workers who had gathered around him. “We’re just gonna demolish the whole house and rebuild, this time on stilts.”

Half a dozen U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) personnel waited for his instructions: What to save, what to dump. It was actually pretty easy. Anything below three feet off the ground was a smelly, sodden mess, because that was the level at which Irma’s storm surge dumped a deluge of stinky gray mud and swamp water that ran through and ruined his family’s house.

But there was plenty to salvage that had survived above the storm surge mark: dishes, wine glasses, his wife Shannon’s macramé hangings, his son’s Little League trophies.

The Service personnel got busy, saving what they could, carrying the family’s possessions to a safe, dry garage in the backyard, where it would wait for the Snyders to rebuild. What could not be saved, they loaded into big black trash bags and hauled them to the curb.

“Thanks a ton,” Snyder told the crew. “I don’t know how we would have done it without you.”

The sun got hotter. The trips got repetitious. The day had just started.

“It’s the right thing to do”

Everglades City is a tiny town of 400-plus, south of Naples on the southern Gulf coast of Florida. Irma blasted through here on Sunday, Sept. 10, with 140 mph winds and a storm surge that has been reported between six and 10 feet high. According to news reports, Everglades City was one of the places that suffered the most from Irma’s fury; most of the town was underwater at one point. Then the storm surge receded, and left the residents with the mother of all clean-up projects.

Debris strewn in the yard after Irma.
Most houses in Everglades City stood up to Hurricane Irma’s winds, but the storm surge flooded many of them and ruined almost everything inside. Residents hauled their sodden belongings out to the street, and most neighborhood roads were lined with piles like this. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Actually, not all that much blew away in Hurricane Irma. Instead, Irma made the residents do the work themselves, hauling their ruined possessions out into their front yards and dumping them next to the street.

Even before Irma hit, the Service had set up an Incident Command team, a structure used to more effectively coordinate efforts in an emergency, and decided to send three task forces to Florida as soon as it was safe. Service coordinator David McCaghren helped assemble the Central Louisiana Task Force; the majority of its 14 members hail from that state. They mustered at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, then set off in a convoy for south Florida, hauling lots of chainsaws and heavy equipment. They got to Everglades City, more than 750 miles away, on Friday, Sept. 15, and got to work.

“Whole neighborhoods were trashed,” said McCaghren. “Incident Command said we’ve got to help these people. We’ve got all these assets, let’s put them to work for the public. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Kayla Kimmel’s day job is as a biologist in the Service’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, conservation office. She volunteered to join the task force, and is the only woman working alongside 13 men.

“We were in this situation a year ago in Baton Rouge,” she said. “We had what they called a 1,000-year flood, and my mom’s house got four and a half feet of water. College friends came down from different states and we cleaned out my mom’s house, and then we just continued working, going house to house for eight days.”

Like all the task force members, she was spattered from head to toe with the foul-smelling gray mud that is ubiquitous in Everglades City. “I’d like to be able to pay it forward,” she continued. “This is a long process, and this is just the start. It’s totally overwhelming for these people. But having people come in who can get big parts of it done takes a lot of the stress off.”

“I just walked down the street with a chainsaw”

The task force split up into several smaller groups. Their first priority was clearing roads so that residents could move freely.

One narrow road was blocked by a battered old boat that had seen better days even before Irma. The wall of water had lifted it out of a nearby yard and deposited it in the middle of a road.

“We were gonna just push it off the road to open the road, but the guy had some attachment to that boat and asked if we could put it on its trailer, so myself, Rod Cobb and John Dickson took a little time and loaded it onto his trailer for him,” said Chris Nothstine, a supervisory forestry technician at Sandhill Crane NWR. “It meant a lot to him.”

Nothstine has had a busy summer. He was deployed in Utah for two weeks fighting the Western wildfires in a separate Incident Command. He returned home for one week, then left for a two-week stint in Florida.

“When we finished up with that street, pushing debris out of the road,” he continued, “we met a guy named Chris Richards, whose family had stayed on the island during the storm. We followed him to his house and his whole family was out there working. We started taking a lot of the work off them that they had been doing for three, four, five days.

A man and a woman in hard hats carry a mattress out of a home.
Members of the Service’s task force did whatever was needed in Everglades City, from cutting down trees with chainsaws to carrying ruined beds out of homes. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“When they saw they had people to help, his wife went straight over to the neighbors’ house and started helping them. When we finished with Chris’s house, we went over to the neighbors’ house where his wife was working and started helping them. We took a tree off a shed.

“At one point,” he added, matter-of-factly, “I just walked down the street with a chainsaw, cutting down trees that were leaning on houses or blocking roads. The big thing is just being out here. Three people on a crew can go a long way, doing outreach.”

Another group of task force members headed to Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee, Florida, a few miles from Everglades City. The U.S. National Park Service manages Big Cypress, and some buildings there had suffered wind damage to their roofs. A crew of four Fish and Wildlife staffers nailed down tarps on three buildings to protect the roofs. It was hot work, but at least there was no gra y mud.

Men in yellow safety vests carefully attach a tarp to a roof.
At Big Cypress National Preserve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers helped out their partners, the U.S. National Park Service, by nailing tarps down on three damaged roofs. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“They’re just amazing, covered in dirt”

“This community has deep roots; it’s more than 100 years old, which is amazing in Florida, where everything is so new,” said Jim Ragusa, principal of Everglades City School, which educates pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in one building. “Many of these people, their great-grandparents and grandparents grew up here.”

The school was already the center of this community in many ways, and Ragusa has made it more so, turning the cafeteria into a staging area to store supplies and a free lunch program for first responders and anyone else who just needs a free lunch. He takes his turn grilling hot dogs and hamburgers along with his many volunteers, but spends a lot of time on his cell phone managing disaster response logistics by the seat of his pants.

“The Fish and Wildlife people have just been tremendous,” he said. “They’ve been working their butts off. They’re just amazing, covered in dirt, busting their ass.”

As he was speaking, the Central Louisiana Task Force, most of them covered in slimy gray mud, lined up for hot dogs and hamburgers, apples and bottles of ice-cold Gatorade. Volunteers greeted them and thanked them.

Men in yellow safety vests and hard hats walk towards a brick building.
After rolling out to work at 7 a.m., task force members took a break and headed for lunch at Everglades City School. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“When I ate lunch with the crew,” task force leader McCaghren said, “they were grinning. I told them, ‘It’s a good feeling, helping like this, isn’t it? There ain’t nothing like it.”

“We’re gonna get you back in shape”

As the Service personnel continued to salvage what they could from Billy Snyder’s little turquoise bungalow, he paused for a minute.

“Three generations of people have lived in this house. This house has been passed around,” he reflected. “But I think it’s run its course.”

Two men in hard hats rest on the back of a pick-up truck.
Paul Gideon, left, from Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, shares a water break with Billy Snyder, who works for the U.S. National Park Service at Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

When Irma was approaching, Snyder, a biologist with the U.S. National Park Service, and his wife Shannon took their sons Henry, 9, and Jack, 7, and evacuated to Enterprise, Alabama.

“When we went to leave, we explained to them why we were leaving,” he said. “We showed them the television. Let them express their feelings. There was no crying, no fussing. We are not feeling sorry for ourselves. We are counting our blessings and consider ourselves extremely fortunate. Nobody died.

“The real story is the way the townsfolk have come together and really pulled together to help one another,” he continued.

“And how the Fish and Wildlife Service just rolled up out of nowhere and said. ‘Hey, we’re gonna get you back in shape.’ ”

By Sunday morning, the task force had new orders. Incident Command wanted them to take their heavy equipment to the Florida Keys, where it was needed. They were on the road before sunrise. Pretty much all of them took a little gray mud with them.


Phil Kloer, Public affairs specialist, (404) 679-7299

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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