Meredith Koonts loves the fact that holiday traditions still mean so much to her 15-year-old daughter, Molly. She has quite a few favorites, whether it’s decorating the house for Halloween, gathering as a family to watch festive movies together or, of course, having a Christmas tree filled with ornaments. This holiday season may be a little different for the Koonts family and many other Central Florida residents as they continue to recover from the impact of Hurricane Ian, the worst storm to hit the area in five years. But Koonts is determined to make it as normal as possible for Molly’s sake.
“I keep calling [our residence] a house,” she says. “We have to put our special touches back on it to make it a home again. Our goal is to have a tree up for our daughter, who is very, very sentimental.”
The entire Koonts family—Meredith, her husband Brian, Molly and her twin brother Jacob—was asleep when Hurricane Ian brought massive flooding to their home in Rio Pinar. They awoke to the sound of items falling off shelves, and discovered water pouring into their home from both the front and back doors. Meredith recalls a chaotic situation in which they couldn’t even see their backyard swimming pool through the windows, because the rain was so heavy.
When all was said and done, there were 13 ½ inches of water in their sunken living room and 9 ½ inches throughout the rest of the house. Meredith posted on Facebook about the ordeal at 4 o’clock that morning, and little did she know the response it would get.
“By the time the sun was up, I had my neighbors and some of my friends’ husbands there,” she says. “Within hours of our house flooding, there were people there with X-Acto knives, cutting up our carpet and cutting up our wood floor. … They showed up without me asking, and they got the carpet out and the water out of my house. They didn’t have to do that.”
Speaking about six weeks after the storm hit, Koonts still gets choked up when relaying the story and describing what she calls a very emotional time for her family. But contractors are slowly but surely starting to repair their house—which they are still living in—and they have salvaged some furniture and other important belongings while saying goodbye to others. They are also taking the opportunity to renovate and update certain aspects of the house, which was built in 1981 and has been their home since 2004.
Even with everything they have faced, Koonts considers them lucky and knows there are others dealing with much more challenging situations. That’s why she and her family showed up for their regular volunteer shift at Second Harvest Food Bank just days after the hurricane, deciding the best way to say thank you for the assistance they received was to pay it forward.
What started as a community service requirement for an honor society that the twins belonged to at school has become a passion for all of them, and they don’t miss volunteering on their scheduled Saturday each month, even if it happens to fall on a family member’s birthday, the kids’ homecoming at Boone High School, or when they’re dealing with major hurricane damage to their home.
“We hold our kids accountable and we talk about commitment and reliability, so it was a non-negotiable for us,” Koonts says. “I needed normalcy for them, so we weren’t canceling, and we won’t cancel. I hope we teach them that as bad as this was for us, especially in their eyes as 15-year-olds, there’s always somebody else who needs more help.”
The Koonts’ were just a few of the many volunteers helping at Second Harvest, which stepped up in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian—and Tropical Storm Nicole, which arrived in Central Florida several weeks later—to provide meals to the hardest-hit areas in Brevard, Volusia, Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties. Second Harvest partners with more than 500 local food assistance programs to serve the region, and volunteers are critical to the efforts as they sort through donations, pack disaster relief boxes and prepare meals for shelters and home deliveries.
“We were able to open on the Saturday following Ian thanks to people who were able to come in, many times out of neighborhoods that had downed trees and things like that,” says Greg Higgerson, chief development officer for Second Harvest. “We couldn’t have gotten that stuff done without the labor to do it. Sometimes they were leaving yards full of debris at home to come in and work. It’s very inspiring to see people look outward to help other people during these times.”
Ironically, Hurricane Ian hit in late September, which is recognized as Hunger Action Month—a time to raise awareness about hunger in the United States. “It was right at the tail end of Hunger Action Month, and boy did we have to take action, and quickly,” Higgerson says. “I’ve never seen Central Florida fail to take action in disaster times, and it was certainly needed this time around.”
In addition to supplying food for its pantry network, Second Harvest was also providing meals for emergency shelters, which typically it will do for about 10 days after a major hurricane. This time, that need existed for closer to four weeks, since many residents were displaced due to flooding.
Higgerson explains that even though every hurricane season is different, the organization always prepares for the worst.
“We have half a million people who face hunger every year in Central Florida, but when a natural disaster happens, a lot of people are facing hunger for the first time,” he says. “We go into every summer knowing what’s possible, and we definitely stock up on things, just as we hope the rest of the community puts together a household kit to get them through 72 hours. We stock up to try to be the emergency supply for the community, especially for those who can’t afford an emergency kit. So we go into the season with a good supply of water and what we call family boxes or disaster boxes.
“Many times, we don’t have to dig into that supply, so we’ll have that as we go into the fall season to distribute around the holidays. This year, of course, we definitely had to dig into that and rely on Feeding America and other food banks and the rest of the community to come up with a lot of additional food to distribute these past several weeks as we saw a heightened need.”
Before the pandemic, Higgerson says, Second Harvest was distributing enough food for about 150,000 meals a day, a number that doubled at the height of COVID. It started to dip but with the problems of inflation, rising gas and grocery prices and now the hurricane, it’s back to 300,000 meals a day being supplied. “We’re back to pandemic levels here in Central Florida, and hopefully it won’t stay there, but it’s hard to say how long it’s going to be that way.”
Another major piece of the recovery effort, in addition to tackling hunger, is debris removal, a task being overseen in Orange County by the Public Works Department. As of late November, the county had collected over 170,000 cubic yards of debris, roughly 60-65% of the anticipated total, according to Ralphetta Aker, the fiscal and operational support division manager for the Public Works Department.
Aker, who has worked for the county for more than 20 years, has not seen a storm affect the area like Ian since Hurricane Irma.
“Irma is probably the most recent storm to directly impact Orange County in a broad sense and it’s probably the one that most residents have the most familiarity with,” she says. “Looking at that, we had two to three times the amount of cubic yardage generated in Irma than what we had during Ian. Looking at those numbers in 2017, we activated at that point three haulers—debris removal contractors—a monitoring company and basically had the county substantially cleaned by the middle of December, and we were done with operations by the middle of December. Working with one contractor now and one monitoring company, we are pretty much going to meet that same deadline—a mid-December completion date is what we’re shooting for at this point.”
The difference this time is the major flooding, which has added another type of debris to the vegetative kind—tree branches and the like that can be either burned or mulched. “When you add flooding, you get a lot of construction and demolition drywall, roof tiles, etc., and those items require additional steps in order to appropriately dispose of them,” Aker says. “That’s the complexity that water and flooding add to this process.”
To keep residents educated about the progress of debris removal, the county and debris removal contractors collaborated on a color-coded map available to peruse on smartphones, computers and tablets. The advancement in technology is one way that the county has changed its response to hurricanes, and before every season they assess what they are doing efficiently, what can be done better, and also meet with other areas of the state and other states to discuss best practices.
There have been reports of some residents being upset with the debris removal after Ian, but with workers putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, Aker is pleased with their efforts.
“It’s an internal process to Public Works and it’s a partnership between our county employees and our contractors that makes this process work, keeps it moving forward and allows us to get to that completion date,” she says. “I’m very proud of the work that both sides of the operation are doing and the diligence and the responsiveness that they’re providing to the citizens.”
Like Aker, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has been serving long enough to remember quite a few storms impacting Central Florida, and each time he has seen the region rise to the occasion to solve whatever problems arise, whether it’s emergency rescue from flooded areas, cleanup or hunger.
“I am always so moved by how our community comes together when faced with adversity, and weathering Hurricane Ian was no different,” he says. “I want to thank all our residents, businesses and visitors for doing their part and more as we faced unprecedented rainfall, flooding and other impacts. I am also proud and thankful for our entire city staff who worked around the clock to help prepare for and recover after Hurricane Ian, ensuring essential services were restored as quickly as possible.”