As a boy, Alex Rodriguez-Roig spent a lot of weekends in the Florida Keys, just an hour or so away from his family’s home in Miami. He loved the natural beauty of the place, the quiet of an afternoon fishing, the fiercely independent people who were unlike any others he had ever encountered. As an adult, he had always treasured those memories and the nostalgic feelings they stirred.
He went back days after the islands had been ravaged by a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. “It looked like a bomb had gone off,” he recalls. “The trees were all gone. Everything was brown.”
The once-pristine landscape had been transformed. Ruined appliances littered the sides of every road. Towering piles of garbage were everywhere. Wind gusts of up to 160 miles per hour had separated roofs and disintegrated homes; in one instance, a flying door had been found impaled on a tree.
There was scant time, however, for reflection or remorse. Rodriguez-Roiz was on a mission.
As chief executive of the Miami-Dade Boys & Girls Clubs, he had come — with some 40 volunteers in tow — to help his friend Dan Dombroski, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Keys Area, who had evacuated during Irma only to return to a nightmarish scene. Rain, winds and a storm surge of five to 10 feet had damaged the two Big Pine Key club buildings beyond repair — demolition and new construction would be required — but there was plenty of work to be done elsewhere.
In addition to cleaning out the Key West Club facility — which has since reopened – the volunteers helped a number of local families whose homes had been destroyed. They salvaged what they could from the ruined structures and disposed of the rest. They cleared debris, removed dead animals and distributed food, water, clothes, diapers and hygiene products from the two tractor-trailers they had brought with them.
“They were heroes,” says Dombroski, who had weathered hurricanes Dennis and Wilma in 2005 but had never seen anything like the fury unleashed by Irma. “When I first came back to the Keys, I looked at the damage and thought that was the end of us. I knew I could expect some help from [the Boys and Girls Clubs of America] and the other club organizations, but I had no idea the level of commitment they would show. It was absolutely overwhelming.”
Dombroski knows he’ll have more challenges ahead, once [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the other first responders depart the area.
“We’re one of the institutions that helps to hold this community together,” he says. “So we’ll have a role in helping our members and their families cope with everything that’s happened. And in fact, we’ve already started doing that.”
In a place where the road literally ends, it’s easy to feel alone. Being reminded of colleagues who care about you can help soothe that sense of solitude. That’s how Dan Dombroski feels about his neighbors to the east. “It was a humbling experience,” he says. “I don’t know how to thank them.”
The Boys and Girls Club received a grant for $327,000 from the Deerbrook Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to help with Big Pine operation costs and to ensure the club is operating at full capacity after the storm. Initially the grant will be used to waive all fees for current and new children attending the clubs until Dec. 31.
This is reprinted by permission from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America newsletter.