GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida IFAS Extension facility in Collier County was rated for a category 3 hurricane. But it was no match for Hurricane Irma.
“Before we came to check on the building, we had heard the damage was bad,” said Twyla Leigh, director of UF/IFAS Extension Collier County. “It truly looked like a tornado came through, with twisted metal torn off the roof and daylight coming through the ceiling.”
Office or no office, UF/IFAS Extension faculty and staff have been working to serve their community, both before and after the storm.
As Irma drew near, shelters quickly reached capacity and began turning away residents. In response, some of Leigh’s staff, who live near the Extension office, were asked to assist when the directive come down to open the facility to approximately 65 evacuees who had no place to go.
“Administrative Assistant Paula Springs helped with admissions and diffused some tense situations. 4-H Coordinator Trisha Aldridge and her family helped make room for people in our multipurpose room, which was filled with things from our garden we took in for the storm,” Leigh said.
“They did the Extension thing: They said, okay, this is the new mission, we will make it happen. They were able to take a difficult situation and make it better. I am very proud of our staff for their participation,” Leigh said.
Evacuees were happy to have somewhere to stay, at least for a little while, Leigh said. Before the storm hit, all were able to relocate to a better prepared shelter that opened at the high school down the street — a good decision, given the damage to the Extension facility, Leigh said.
Now that the hurricane is over, it’s time to regroup and rebuild, she said.
“We don’t know right now how long it will take to get the building operational again,” Leigh said. “We will need new roof, insulation, ceiling tiles and carpet. We are trying to move everything that’s salvageable into storage containers or to our temporary working locations. The power did come back on, so that is going to arrest mold growth.”
At this point, faculty and staff will mainly work out of a facility at the Max Hasse Community Park in Naples. A room at a downtown museum will serve as a temporary plant clinic.
“We have space for everyone. Parks and recreation and the museum have been very willing to help and let us use their space,” Leigh said.
Staff will also use office space at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. “We really appreciate the offers of help from folks in UF/IFAS Extension in our district and the rest of the state,” Leigh said.
Despite working out of temporary locations, UF/IFAS Extension Collier County faculty will still offer classes to the public.
“Once we have the phones set up, we can have calls forwarded to us and start serving clientele again. We have classes from the Family Nutrition Program for later in the week and 4-H programming scheduled for next week,” Leigh said. “Some of our faculty and staff don’t yet have power, water, internet or phone. We all still have downed trees and recovery projects at home to attend to. But we are coming into work to make a difference and serve the citizens of Collier County.”
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