A warehouse full of hope and help, post-Irma

Bernadette Restivo at the warehouse she helped create to store donations for Hurricane Irma victims.
Bernadette Restivo at the warehouse she helped create to store donations for Hurricane Irma victims. Keynoter

Bernadette Restivo, post-Hurricane Irma, created the big warehouse that could.

Restivo, a Key West lawyer known for handling the first successful lawsuit that overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, said she couldn’t take watching truckloads of donations from across the country being turned away a week after the storm in Monroe County because there was no agency to take them or storage.

“I put a rant on Facebook,” Restivo said. “I was at the Big Pine Key tent city and I watched them turn away 11 trucks full of donations. I couldn’t comprehend we didn’t need more help. I watched them leave the Keys.”

At one point, Monroe County issued a statement asking people to donate money to nonprofits rather than goods, as locals were overwhelmed sorting through incoming supplies and space in the Keys is highly limited by nature.

But Restivo thought otherwise.

Phone calls to various local power players led to restaurant owner Joe Walsh donating the old Budweiser warehouse on Rockland Key, a rough and ready spot perfect for what Restivo wanted to do: Accept, store and give to local agencies various household necessities.

The warehouse of supplies holds diapers, formula, nonperishable food, FEMA tarps, pet food, bug spray and cleaning supplies. But it isn’t for individuals to stop by and fill up. Instead, it serves the nonprofits and faith-based groups across the Keys that can go and load up on supplies— there’s a loading dock and a man Restivo only knows as “Forklift Joe” there to help.

“Nobody should be starving in Monroe County for a long time,” Restivo said the other day, surrounded by cases and truckloads of household goods.

As for donation ideas, Restivo says thank you, but please no more bottled water. Instead, diapers go out the door the fastest, along with meal supplements like Ensure for adults.

The agencies then deliver the needed goods to families and individuals stung by the devastation caused by Irma on Sept. 10.

“They just keep coming in,” said Elmira Leto, who runs a homeless shelter for families with children called Samuel’s House. “Wal-mart sent two semi trucks. There’s seven pallets from New York City.”

Project Green sent cases of almonds, almond milk and crackers. At one point, the warehouse had generators and chain saws.

“We even had a kitchen sink,” Restivo said, laughing, noting the old adage of “everything but the kitchen sink.”

No, they had one.

This week, volunteers made up 100 bags filled with toiletries and food and had them delivered to liveaboard boaters and the homeless near the old seaport in Key West. It was after a local pointed them to the need.

“It’s unbelievable,” Restivo said of the response of donations. “We’re speaking to people to move some of this to Puerto Rico at some point.”

The women behind the warehouse, which has become a nonprofit called Keysstrong.org, don’t see the needs in the Keys community drying up anytime soon, considering the severe damage done to the Middle and Lower Keys.

“We’re not looking at everybody being healed in two months,” Leto said. “I’d say three to four years.”

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen