Andy Linton forked a palette of boxes filled with canned tuna. His face was blanketed with three days growth. He wore black like in mourning for his usual sleep: black wrap-around sunglasses, black T-shirt, black pants, black circles under his eyes.
Linton jerked the yellow fork lift into gear and gingerly set down the tuna inside a Red Cross truck. Then came boxes of bottled water, plastic crates of milk cartons, and huge jars of peanut butter, all heading to the Red Cross warehouse in Fort Myers.
Hurricane Wilma was gone. Cold air, sunshine and a mess were here in her place.
The more than 5,000 disaster victims who sought shelter at Germain Arena in Estero were gone by 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Now Linton, executive chef at Germain Arena, along with Bill Rice, volunteer shelter manager with the Red Cross in charge of Germain, had to clean up the place and get remaining supplies to other shelters, other victims.
“This is what we do every year,” said Rice, haggard and in command.
“Hey, Kevin. Get me five bags of ice,” said Linton, then reaching for a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, red box against his black everything, and pulled a long, tight drag before continuing.
“Now, I can finally think,” said the chef.
Linton and his kitchen crew had just completed more than four days of almost non-stop work. Some staff, like Eric Adams and Kevin Brown, arrived on Friday and were still at Germain, still working. They slept in shifts in the arena’s luxury boxes, worked in shifts, laughed when they could find the time.
“We made 8,000 ham and cheese sandwiches in six hours one day,” said Brown, his sandy brown hair on end. “People needed it, so we did it.”
Germain also served as the Red Cross staging ground for other Lee County shelters, like the YMCA in Bonita Springs and South Fort Myers High School. That meant more work for Linton’s crew.
Brown opined as a shelter worker and seeker, saying the Red Cross and Lee County first-responders were impressive, organized and well prepared. And he didn’t mind the extra work.
Outside in the cool air, Adams lit a cigarette, had his own wraparound shades. He said, “Man, I’m gonna sleep for two days. I don’t want to look at another piece of turkey or ham or nothing for a while.”
Behind him, a fresh set of Red Cross volunteers arrived with two more cavernous vehicles. They stacked canvas cots and chairs, smiled and hugged one another in their red vests and white shirts.
Adams pointed to a man, Germain building engineer Billy Zielaznicki, and said, “That guy’s our hero.”
When Wilma’s wind and rain knocked out power around 4 a.m. on Monday, Zielaznicki drove from North Cape Coral in his truck to engage the arena’s generator, which failed to generate. It was one of many behind the scenes saves by arena staff, said the loosening group outside.
Inside the arena, Carlos Castro and his cleaning crew carried spray bottles of disinfectant like holstered pistols and took a rag to every surface. They moved dry and wet mops over dusty cement floors. They carried large green trash bags through the aisles of arena seating and picked up apple cores, half-eaten ham sandwiches, old dirty socks, empty cans of Dr. Pepper, crunched Fruit Loops and mashed Cheetos.
There were no plumbing problems to report at Germain, said Castro, just some detached sheet metal on the roof.
Germain arena’s general manager, Steve St. John, said the arena had contracted with United States Services Industries, a commercial cleaning firm based in Washington, D.C., to fully sanitize the building. The Everblades hockey team already played a game yesterday, and a youth league practiced Wednesday just hours after the last evacuee left the shelter.
“People slept in here. Used it like a home for three days. So, obviously we have to have it cleaner than when they came,” said St. John.
A spokesperson with the Federal Emergency Management Association said that cleaning expenses were eligible to be picked up by FEMA. Bennie Seth, a spokesperson with Lee County Emergency Operations Center, said FEMA has picked up similar expenses in the past.
Maybe Ryan Smiley, associate executive director of the Bonita Springs YMCA, and his staff would have found that information useful before plowing through an entire day of cleaning the new YMCA at 27200 Kent Road in Bonita Springs until 10 p.m. on Tuesday. The YMCA opened for members on Wednesday at 5:30 a.m., as scheduled, sparkling from top to bottom.
Smiley said the building, opened in April, pulled through with few problems in its first test as a hurricane shelter. More than 350 people spent Sunday night in three separate rooms, the vast majority of them native Spanish speakers, said Smiley. The Red Cross provided translators, and disaster victims staying in the facility also volunteered to relay communications. It was a relaxed team effort, said Smiley, unlike the strained environment at Germain, where a lack of translators led to frustrated and confused evacuees.
Maybe the YMCA was too relaxed.
“Until daylight broke on Monday morning, a majority of the people were still sleeping,” said Smiley. “You couldn’t even tell a storm was passing through unless you looked out the windows.”
Standing roof water and clogged roof drains contributed to a few slight leaks, but nothing noticeable to evacuees, said Smiley.
Across from the YMCA, at Glade Haven Mobile Park on East Terry Street, 28-year-old Miguel Lopez was busy cleaning up palm fronds and repairing his trailer’s air-conditioning unit. Lopez stayed at the YMCA with his wife and 18-month-old daughter.
“Everything went good there,” said Lopez, who added that everyone ate well and had no problems.
Thirteen-year-old Juan Zumaya, also a Glade Haven resident and student at Lexington Middle School, stayed with his family at Germain Sunday night. He would exchange all the coffee, cereal and sandwiches he enjoyed just to have his grandmother’s purse returned. It went missing sometime Sunday night, with money, her identification and prescription medication.
“There were a lot of people, but it wasn’t crowded,” said Zumaya.
At South Fort Myers High School, another first-time shelter and brand-new construction, those in need of shelter slept in hallways and the gymnasium and relived high school days by eating in the cafeteria.
Principal Tommy O’Connell, who slept in his office with his two dogs, said on Wednesday morning that the school was spotless, ready to accept students when Lee County schools reopen next week. He reported no incidents of criminal activity or flare-ups. He and the Lee County EOC and the Red Cross ran the ship right, he said.
Thad Bowerman served as the Red Cross shelter manager at the high school, working three straight days and managing three hours of sleep.
“That was like riding it out in an aircraft carrier,” said Bowerman about the building’s resistance to the storm. “That place is a bunker.”
Bowerman explained that his Red Cross crew left the heavy-duty cleaning requiring elbow grease to school department cleaning professionals. Their job as volunteers is to manage shelters, care for disaster survivors, and the injured and elderly, not so much the bucket and rag end of things.
“I’m doing this as a volunteer. Taking vacation time,” said Bowerman.
A spokesperson for Lee County Red Cross, Jody Van Cooney, said nothing “out of the ordinary” occurred at Germain, the YMCA and South Fort Myers High.
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(Contact Staff Writer Matt Herrick at 213-6047 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)