Remembering Hurricane Katrina makes me #ChobeeProud

OKEECHOBEE — This week I noticed some Okeechobee community members are using #ChobeeProud on social media when they make comments about positive news about Okeechobee County. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, remembering Okeechobee’s response to that storm, I am #ChobeeProud.

If you lived South Florida in 2004 and 2005, you will remember the historic storms we faced. The Hurricane Season of 2004 brought four famous storms Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Two of those storms — Frances and Jeanne — tore Okeechobee apart, downing power lines, toppling trees and tearing roofs off homes.

So when the 2005 hurricane season brought Hurricane Katrina, community members prepared for the worst, and heaved a collective sigh of relief when the storm passed by without significant damage in our area. But the Gulf Coast was not so lucky. Like the rest of the country, we watched the storm victims on the television news. And, knowing first hand what it was like to survive after a hurricane, people in Okeechobee wanted to help.

The hurricane damage was so widespread, it didn’t seem like a small, rural community could make a difference. But Okeechobee did make a difference. The Okeechobee News and the Okeechobee Chamber of Commerce partnered to “adopt” Franklinton, La. as a sister city and to help the people there. Franklinton was chosen because it is a small, rural area whose economy was based on the dairy industry, and we felt a certain kinship. We also chose Franklinton because while the larger urban areas were receiving help from state and federal sources, few supplies were making it to the rural communities. We knew was it was like to have to fend for ourselves after a bad storm.

The other organizers insisted that I be the one to call Franklinton and make arrangements on the other end. And at first, when I told them “this is Katrina,” I thought they were going to hang up on me. But we were soon connected with the local extension office, the sheriff’s office and of course, the local newspaper.

It only took a few phone calls to get the ball rolling. Walpole donated the use of a semi and the fuel for trip. Rick Canevari volunteered his time to drive the truck. The VFW on U.S. 441 S.E. donated the use of their hall for one week to sort and store donations.  Businesses all over town volunteered to be donation sites. A local bank set up an account for cash donations. Okeechobee News staffers were soon busy covering cardboard boxes in newspaper, adding ‘hurricane donation’ signs and dropping off the boxes. In the days that followed, they were even busier picked up the filled boxes and dropping off new empties.

Four nights in a row, hundreds of area residents — including youth from 4-H Clubs, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts — helped to sort, pack and label the supplies. Some of those volunteers came every day, right after work, and worked until late into the night. While they were sorting and packing supplies, more supplies kept pouring in.

It seemed like everyone in Okeechobee helped with the drive. People and businesses donated clothing, food, batteries, duct tape, water, sleeping bags, packing supplies and more. The donors felt a connection with those in need. Mothers of young children donated diapers and powdered baby formula. A family who had lost their own home and had lived in a tent after Hurricane Jeanne, donated a tent.

Many people and area clubs also donated cash. Some who live from paycheck to paycheck opted to tighten their own belts to give.

A group from the Okeechobee Livestock Market came up with the idea to make up “Ziploves”’; they packed individual clothing outfits in Ziplock bags to keep the clothing clean. Each bag was labeled with the size of the clothing, making distribution easier. They added some small “extras” to the bags, such as a small toy with a child’s outfit, or a comb in a bag containing men’s clothing.

The donation drive was held over a week — we knew the people in Franklinton needed help as soon as possible.

The day the truck left was something to see. First stop was the old U-Save supermarket, as the store gave the fundraiser the wholesale price on flats of water, baby food, diapers and other supplies and loaded the goods with a forklift. Then it was on to the VFW, where a small army of volunteers formed a human chain to move the boxes and load the truck — and those boxes nearly filled the large semi to capacity.

I was #ChobeeProud that day, and even prouder when we started to hear from Franklinton residents just how many people that truckload of supplies helped. We learned that in addition to food and clothing, that truckload of donations gave them hope. In later years, some Franklinton residents even visited Okeechobee, and proceeded to thank everyone they met.

So while the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reminded me of the depressing days following the storm that shared my name, it also reminds me of all of the wonderful people in Okeechobee, people who can be counted on to help when you need them.

#ChobeeProud

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Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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