Heroes of Irma

Hurricane Irma is regarded as one of the strongest Atlantic Ocean storms on record. Those who endured it will undoubtedly support this historic claim and tell you stories of nature’s devastation. The unprecedented power of Irma made preparation nearly impossible, even with emergency plans and stockpiles of hurricane supplies. After Irma tore through Puerto Rico, Cuba, and many other islands, it shifted its unpredictable path toward Florida where many Guest Services units operate.

“The storm wasn’t originally forecasted to hit Southwest Florida with full force. At essentially the last minute, it changed its path and began heading directly for us,” says Laura Sherman, senior managing director of Guest Services, Inc.’s Hospitality Division. Laura helped oversee the Hospitality Division’s hurricane preparedness plans, worked alongside many who experienced the storm and helped with restoration during the aftermath.

With the storm quickly shifting course toward Naples, our teams in Florida were left to operate within significantly reduced windows of time to properly prepare our managed and owned properties.  Compounding these final preparations was the declared State of Emergency by Local and State government officials. “Under normal circumstances, it takes about five days to prepare for a storm, but there is only so much you can do when a record hurricane is barreling down on your community… even with our plans firmly in place, things can still go horribly wrong. At St. Rafael, a condominium community in Naples, our team followed every step of their emergency plan and thoroughly secured their unit, but, the building’s main doors were blown in and their newly-renovated lobby was practically destroyed,” Laura said.

As the storm came through, the situation became increasingly complex with challenges ranging from communication barriers to the physical care of residents. “When the evacuation order became mandatory, many residents didn’t want to leave.  Confusion and angst ensued as the airport was shut down and hotels were either sold out or closed.  Our amazing employees responded by staying to help residents through the storm, and, offering assistance anywhere else they could. Keeping all of the owners up-to-date on the storm and the state of their properties also became a challenge, but, our team persevered.”

Laura expressed her strong appreciation and admiration for our employees and first responders who made a significant difference during and after the hurricane.

“Our teams were outstanding! Before the storm, Bill Briggs and Tricia Rickard (at the corporate office) orchestrated the rapid construction of a website for Mary Danitz to maintain an open and constant line of communication with property owners and community residents. Mary truly went above and beyond updating owners, residents, and team members with detailed information regarding the storm’s path, evacuation orders, boil water notices, power restoration, formal approval to safely return and other pertinent information. Melissa Dogali of the Hospitality Division and Matt Smith of the Recreation Division also played major roles in successfully guiding our Florida properties through the storm. Tim Raible and Edward Rios at our Lakeland and Orlando properties did a phenomenal job preparing their units when Irma shifted their way. More than a dozen of our team members, at several different locations, stayed on-site over 72 hours throughout the storm, helping residents wherever they could… one of the maintenance staff members went outside during the storm, in 90 mph winds, to clear drains that were overflowing, which kept several buildings from flooding.”

“Even after the storm, as employees returned, they brought all kinds of supplies, from water and generator fuel, to essential groceries, as supplies were very hard to source locally. Our teams went through our properties, floor by floor, without elevators – which still had no power, to mark damage for owner reports, check refrigerators for spoiled foods and assess every other aspect of the buildings.”

The Marbella at Pelican Bay, a senior living community in Naples, had their own harrowing experience. Troy Cardwell, the GM at the Marbella recounts the storm. “The descriptions you heard on the news were all accurate. The howls of a hurricane slamming the building were deafening. The driving rains were so incredibly hard that it looked like waterfalls were pouring off the top of our building. Outside you could see roof panels and palm fronds being torn apart and debris thrown through the air like it was nothing.”

When asked about their hurricane contingency plan Troy said, “We had a comprehensive plan set in place; we followed it very closely and didn’t deviate at all from it. Water still poured into our lobby. It wasn’t just the heroics of our staff, but also the bravery of our residents to take action in the blink of an eye that prevented a greater disaster. When the front doors began to fail, we quickly recognized that if we didn’t stop the water from pouring in, we could lose the Marbella. Grabbing every towel, sheet, squeegee, broom and really just about anything we could to absorb water, we were able to keep the water from overtaking the lobby.”

“The most important thing is that no one was hurt. Not one person. It was truly an inspiring experience being among such a phenomenal group of people, both staff, and residents.”

The storm was historically devastating, but its full effect wasn’t only felt at our properties.  Laura says, “The entire time the storm was bombarding our sites and wreaking havoc, many residents and employees had families further south that were already dealing with the aftermath of Irma. The emotional toll of the storm is often overlooked. The storm itself gets publicity but once it leaves so does much of the outside world’s concern. There is no telling how long the aftermath will last from a storm like this. We are still feeling the effects and we most likely will for months to come.”

The storm was undeniably tragic, but the heroism of those who stepped in to help was undeniable; no one at the units was significantly injured, damage in most cases was largely prevented, and business was reopened in a timely manner. Families of residents have voiced their gratitude for the amazing help provided by Guest Services’ staff and management. We also would like to express our great appreciation to our staff for once again going above and beyond; and, in this case, literally saving lives. THANK YOU!