Hurricane Irma: Heroes rise in all kinds of ways throughout Lee County

Southwest Floridians helping Southwest Floridians – in their greatest time of need.
Hurricane Irma once again brought out what’s best about this community – the caring, the giving, the concern, the thoughtfulness and the heroes.

One was Manny Gonzalez. Working on about four hours of sleep the previous three days, Gonzalez received a jolt of adrenaline when told an elderly woman wanted to stay outside of Germain Arena, a hurricane shelter, and die in the storm.
Her name was Pettina.

“She had called and left voicemails saying goodbye,” Gonzalez could hear.

More: Irma update: Lee County declares Hurricane Irma ‘major disaster’

More: Hurricane Irma update: What we know now – Power outages, Day 5 after the storm updates

More: Irma update: Local churches show their power in unity

The clock struck noon Sunday, the winds had started to kick up around Germain, and it only would get worse.

Gonzalez approached Pettina gently and asked, “What’s going on, is there anything I can do?”

Pettina said, “I’m claustrophobic… I have all this organic food I bought. I want to go back home.”

Gonzalez asked another question. “Are you thirsty?” When Pettina said yes, he made her a deal.

“How about you come inside and I’ll get you some water and get you situated in an isolated spot,” he offered.

Pettina then turned to Gonzalez and said, “I’m going in because I like you.”

In a mass of 6,272 people, Gonzalez found her a spot in Section 106 and when he checked in every couple of hours, she smiled, waved and said, “Manny, there you go.”

Like Gonzalez, who saw his car and laptop flooded in the storm, volunteers forged on despite their own losses – and became heroes.

People crowd together outside the main arena but in the hallways at Germain. (Photo: Special to The News-Press)

As Gulf Coast Village pastor Tom Hafer said, “If asked, ‘Where is God in all this?’ don’t point to the storm, point to the neighbors helping each other prepare; or the hospitals ramping up their efforts, the rescue workers, the senior centers, the schools serving as shelters. … There you will find God.”

We have a number of wonderful stories of people going out of their way to help others:
Texting pastors

Bring a group of area pastors together, put their Bibles aside for a few minutes, give them cell phones and what do you get? Texting heroes who have been mobilizing people, resources and supplies to those struggling to recover from the hurricane.

Next level Church lead pastor Matt Keller reached out to other area pastors about creating a texting string that would help them better coordinate on how to get supplies to those most in need. Since that happened a few days ago, the pastors have worked with national group Convoy of Hope and other local organizations to dispense help and much-needed supplies.

Volunteers bring food and other supplies to a resident in Bonita Springs. The supplies came from truckloads that arrived from Donate for Hope. (Photo: Special to The News-Press)

“The beauty of this whole thing is this is not about one church getting all the credit. It’s about all of us working together and all of us caring about the whole community and being on the same team together,” Cape Christian Fellowship founding pastor Dennis Gingerich said.

And help also is arriving by the tractor trailer load from 1,200 miles away to residents in Bonita Springs, Estero, the Pine Manor area and Lehigh Acres.

Convoy of Hope, a faith-based, humanitarian organization funded by corporate and business donations, has approximately 20 tractor-trailer trucks filled with over 30,000 pounds of supplies each, coming to Living Waters Church in Estero. Volunteers – mainly from area church groups – then take the supplies that include hot, pre-packaged meals; water, hygiene products and some paper products into the hardest-hit neighborhoods and distribute them.

Several trucks have already arrived and volunteers have been passing out supplies for the past several days. More trucks are arriving each day to Living Waters Church on U.S. 41, where volunteers then roll out to the different neighborhoods.

“I think one of biggest surprises for me is I met a girl in a restaurant and she saw our shirts and she was on the verge of tears thanking us,” said Jeff Nene, national spokesperson for Convoy of Hope who is helping with the relief effort here. “She said it was hard to believe that people from so far away would come down and help us.”

Convoy of Hope, created in 1994, is based in Springfield, Missouri. The organization relies on donations from several large corporations, including Bass Pro Shops, Culligan Water, Walmart, George Pacific, Home Depot, Little Debbie snacks and many others.

The trucks’ 1,250-mile journey here is taking about 22 hours because of heavy traffic created by people trying to return home.

The 4-year-old daughter of Jose Luis Martinez helps arrange supplies in the back of the family pick-up. (Photo: Melanie Payne/

Convoy of Hope is not only distributing supplies to communities in Lee, but also sent a truckload of nine pallets of hot meals to Everglades City, which experienced significant structural damage to residences and businesses, as well as heavy flooding.

The organization also is working disaster relief in a big way in Texas, from Corpus Christi to Houston, where Hurricane Harvey ravaged the eastern portion of the state. Over 125 trucks filled with supplies were sent and over 2,000 volunteers activated.

The next phase for Convoy of Hope in the coming days will be to distribute cleaning supplies to volunteers to help residents, whose homes suffered damage from flooding or the high winds, clean up.

The pastors’ texting network also helped in the coordination of getting five pallets of donated Honey Baked hams to the right areas. They also are finding places to live for 50 men arriving soon from Alabama with heavy equipment. They have coordinated an effort to send volunteers to the Living Waters Church in Naples, which sustained significant damage and needs help cleaning up in order to open for services next weekend.

“We are coordinating the needs, who has the worst damage, who is doing what and who is going where,” Gingerich said.

A ministry from Virginia, called Mercy Chefs, also recently arrived and is cooking meals for people in front of Living Waters in Estero.

“People are so grateful,” said Jamie Stilson, pastor at the Vineyard Community Church in Cape Coral.

Help from far away
Mike Bendick, who owns a home on Fort Myers Beach, and Gary Bush, who is a Cape Coral resident, drove down from Pennsylvania and North Carolina with trailers full of water, non-perishable food, cleaning supplies, baby wipes, dog and cat food, chainsaws and other items for hurricane victims.

“You kinda gotta do something,” said Bush’s wife Claudia. “You can’t not do something. We were blessed that we didn’t get a lot of damage here or from Hurricane Charley.
“We just want to help our neighbors.”

Wonderful neighbors
Jeff Kirsch, son Ryan and a grandson went around their neighborhood and removed fallen trees before tending to their own.

This act is normal for Kirsch, Angela Higginbotham said. He’ll mow her lawn or trim her bushes without asking for payment.

Facebook hero
Realtor Heather Wightman drove around neighborhoods in Collier and south Lee counties where she visited residents and did Facebook Live videos. She also posted where food, gas and water are available.

“My phone’s been blowing up,” Wightman said. “Customers who fled saying, ‘Can you go by my house. Checking on their status has been an enlightenment.”

Wightman had planned to go with other Keller-Williams agents to Houston to help hurricane victims there but canceled her flight because of Irma.


  • United Way 211 staff and volunteers, as well as Lee County Emergency Operations personnel, have worked around the clock to answer over 20,000 calls from people needing help.
  • Tom Dean, who owns a home health-care company, had a generator so he brought in elderly clients who have no power where his staff took care of them in his office off Brantley Road.
  • Rivky Labkowski of the Chabad Jewish Center in Cape Coral opened her home as well as the center for locals without air conditioning to spend the night or relax. She cooked dinner, provided programs for children to give their parents a break while she comforted and consoled others.
  • Broadway Palm’s Will Prather fed 400 people on Wednesday.
  • Millennial Brewery is giving proceeds from Food Truck Friday to the SWFL Hurricane Relief Fund.
  • Kevin Ahmadi, executive director of Gulf Coast Village, coordinated 900 people in the two buildings while housing resident staff, their families, and 50 dogs.
  • The Fort Myers Miracle baseball team are donating money and staff time to relief efforts, as well as creating special hurricane relief effort merchandise to be sold and the money given to storm victims.
  • FineMark Bank opened its building during the storm to 125 employees and family members.
  • John Tobler and his crew of nine from Tobler Construction, obliged when hired by the City of Fort Myers to clear trees and debris that were blocking city streets. “There was one tree that was so big, it fell from the west side to the east side and across the street,” Tobler said. “We had to carefully extract the cars and trucks from underneath all of that debris.”