While it is no longer something Pinellas County residents think about every day, especially since Nicole just came through and left a slight mark, the cleanup and recovery from Hurricane Ian continues an hour or two to the south.
A Gulfport man decided to lend a hand to those in need, and others in town have joined that effort.
Shawn Hebert bought a used airport shuttle bus a few years ago for his family to use for summer travel. As he considered some of the amenities the vehicle provides, he thought of a way to provide some help.
“It has numerous electrical outlets in it because we wanted to make it suitable for travel,” he said of the bus. “When the hurricane struck, I realized that a lot of people don’t have power down there. The bus is like a large diesel generator so I thought I could go down and provide power for them to charge their phones and run extension cords to use microwaves and other things we could bring down.”
Since he was making the trip in a fairly large vehicle, he decided to see if anyone else nearby wanted to donate items he could take with him. After he posed the question on Facebook, it didn’t take long to get multiple responses.
Gulfport resident Julie Shaffer heard that Hebert was going to microwave and boil hot dogs for people without power or food. She decided it would be much better to grill them, so she had him take her to Home Depot where she purchased a grill to put on the bus.
“We had hot dogs and cheeseburgers and all kinds of stuff that was donated,” said Hebert.
He connected online with someone in the Englewood area and who told him about some mobile home parks that were hit particularly hard there. One of them was not accessible because of debris, but Hebert was able to set up inside the other park across the road, and they started an impromptu cookout. He took down all the ice he could carry, thanks to a donation from Key West Seafood.
“A lot of people were so glad to get cold drinks,” said Hebert. “I saw on TV how many people are donating water and I thought people are probably sick of water so I bought a whole bunch of sodas and other kinds of drinks besides water. That went over very well. We did have water, too.”
Hebert saw a considerable amount of damage that first day at the mobile home park. Debris was scattered everywhere, and many residential units were either completely destroyed or marked for demolition.
“The residents were there going through things and trying to save what they could,” he said. “I think for some of them it hadn’t really sunk in yet.”
Hebert brought his girlfriend and their twin daughters along for this trip. Part of the reason was that he wanted the young girls to see how real the damage was – which, but for a slight turn in the weather, could have been their own home – and how they could help others in need.
“When we evacuated here [in Gulfport] I was afraid I was going to lose everything,” he said. “Our blessing in this area was their misfortune down there. I figured we should do what we can to help.”
Hebert soon realized that this would not be a one-time excursion. Donations from local people have continued to come in, and he took his fourth trip down Nov. 6. He was contacted by a few local groups that were collecting donations and had no way to get them there, so he packed the bus as tightly as possible and took everything he could.
A church in Englewood was doing a great deal of work distributing goods and helping those in need, so on one trip he dropped off most of the donations there and went back to the mobile home park for another cookout. Another volunteer, Erin Carr, brought her own SUV down so that she and her family could take the cooked food around to residents in the area who couldn’t get to where Hebert had the grill set up.
“Her vehicle allowed her to get into the mobile home park that had more devastation, so she was delivering a lot of the hot dogs and cheeseburgers and ice and everything to the even harder hit areas than we could bring the bus into,” he said.
David Flack also made the trip, bringing gift cards that had been collected back in Gulfport to be distributed to those affected by the devastation.
Hebert’s work is not yet done. As of Nov. 15, his bus sat in his driveway with a partial load of supplies and he awaits what else may come in so he will have a full load on his next trip.
“I’m thinking that as long as people continue to give things I would do like one trip every other weekend,” he said. “I’m not a nonprofit; we’re just people coming together and doing what we can to help. We’re not an official charity or anything like that. We’re just individuals helping with what we can.”