Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma. Katie Klann/Naples Daily News
Robby and Jordan Mayberry put the final touch on their Everglades City home just last month.
Installing their kitchen backsplash marked the end of a five-year saga of home improvement projects.
Their two daughters got the pool they wanted. Robby Mayberry got his garage. The kitchen and two bathrooms were Jordan Mayberry’s favorite rooms.
Hurricane Irma did away with all of it.
“The foundation shifted, and there were 16 inches of water inside,” said Robby Mayberry, a lieutenant for the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “There’s mud everywhere, and mold is already growing through the house.”
For more on Hurricane Irma and the storm's aftermath, visit: naplesnews.com/hurricane.
One of his coworkers, Lt. Robert Campbell, also lost his Everglades City home.
Campbell’s wife, Karen, and their two kids evacuated to Orlando before the storm and stayed there for two weeks. He stayed to work.
There was so much flooding in the street, Campbell couldn’t check on their house until the day after the hurricane passed, and he had to take a swamp buggy to get there.
He found his refrigerator floating near the front door, the recliner in the kitchen and mud everywhere. The 30 inches of water that filled the house ruined all their belongings. The house was condemned.
“We lost a lot, but they’re just material things,” Campbell said. “They can be bought again. We have enough right now to survive. We’re just grateful we’re all here.”
It’s not every day that firefighters lose their homes to the same tragedy from which they’re helping their community recover.
Mayberry and Campbell grew up in Everglades City and went to school with some of the people with whom they work. Everyone in the city looks out for each other and knows one another, they said.
“This isn’t a small community,” Mayberry said. “It’s a big family.”
The two lieutenants have more than 30 years of experience as firefighters between them. For people so accustomed to helping others, needing help themselves feels foreign.
“It’s ... different to be on the other side,” Campbell said.
While dealing with their own struggles following the hurricane, they’re witnessing the plight of their neighbors, friends and family.
They’re seeing the aftermath of a hurricane that left the people they’ve grown up around and known most of their lives without homes and with nowhere else to turn.They’re seeing neighbors get sick from exposure to floodwater so contaminated, the bacteria can’t be counted. The place they call home isn’t the same anymore.
“Working 17 years for a fire department, you see some horrible things,” Campbell said. “I think about it as being a bad movie that’ll be over soon. All of this, it’s just a bad movie. It’ll be over soon.”
Most everyone in Everglades City is experiencing loss after Hurricane Irma, but the Campbells and the Mayberrys said they feel fortunate to have options when so many others in their community have none. The Campbells are living in a friend’s home on Marco Island until they find permanent housing. The Mayberrys are staying at a relative’s condo for a few months while they get squared away with their insurance company.
“You take a home for granted until you realize the luxuries it provides you once it’s taken away,” Jordan Mayberry said. “Privacy, freedom, family ties, comfort, sense of security. I’m just glad we all have each other to get through it.”
The families are a long way from getting back to their normal lives and routines. Getting the kids back to school this week is a start.
The Mayberry girls — Rylee, 7, and Taylor, 11 — have been emotional about losing their things and not having their beds to sleep in. The Campbell kids — Rocco, 4, and Sophia, 11 — feel like they’re on an extended vacation. He’s too young to understand what happened. The Campbells are waiting to see how Sophia does when she heads back to school.
“Our concern is our kids,” Karen Campbell said. “We’ve been through worse. My husband was diagnosed with MS in 2006. This is nothing in comparison to what we went through back then. So many people are in worse shape than we are right now.”
The men reserve tremendous hope for the recovery of their community.
Mayberry hopes the businesses that rely on tourism — air boating, fishing, stone crabbing — recover quickly. He said he’s grateful to have a job that doesn’t rely on seasons, but the majority of the town relies on seasonal employment.
He also hopes homes that need rebuilding will be built higher and stronger so they can withstand the next storm.
“This is a big speed bump, but we’re all going to get over it,” Campbell said. “The community comes together like it always does and move forward.”
The Greater Naples Fire Foundation, a nonprofit established to support firefighters in times of crisis, is raising money to help Campbell, Mayberry and their families get back on their feet. Donations can be dropped off or mailed to fire headquarters at 14575 Collier Blvd. or the Fire and Life Safety Facility at 2700 N. Horseshoe Drive.
Great Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt said that, to the best of the department’s knowledge, Mayberry and Campbell are the only firefighters whose houses were a total loss after the hurricane. One civilian employee is still out of town and unreachable, but fire officials checked on her home, he said, and it looks OK.
Schuldt said the department is working with the business and civic communities in Collier County to help the families.
“This is a delicate situation,” Schuldt said. “We have a lot of people who lost a lot. We’re not trying to overshadow anyone else’s needs, but we have to take care of our own while taking care of others’ needs.”
For more information see greaternaplesfire.org to contact the office of the fire chief. Some phones in the department’s administrative offices are not working.