Florida Legion Family: ‘Don’t forget about us’

The status reports were heartbreaking. American Legion Post 303 in Bonita Springs, Fla.: heavy damage. Post 274: Fort Myers Beach: heavy damage. Post 123: Sanibel: heavy damage. They were among the sites visited by members of the American Legion Department of Florida Disaster Preparedness team on Nov. 15.

During the month following Hurricane Ian, Disaster Preparedness Chairman Bill Hoppner had driven more than 2,625 miles delivering relief items to posts, American Legion Family members and residents who have been impacted. The department estimates that approximately 27 percent of its members live in affected areas.

The message, really plea, that Floridians kept repeating is “don’t forget about us.” While news crews inundated the airwaves during and in the days following the storm, elections, holidays and other stories have diverted media attention. Six American Legion posts in Florida were completely destroyed by the hurricane. Others were moderately or lightly damaged.

Though less severe in scope, Hurricane Nicole’s arrival on Nov. 10 was another gut punch to the state. By early December, 59 hurricane-related National Emergency Fund grants had been awarded to Florida posts, Legionnaires and Sons of The American Legion members. Truckloads of supplies and relief items had arrived from 29 American Legion departments.

Monetary donations came in from Legionnaires, Sons of The American Legion members and American Legion Auxiliary members from around the world.

More than a month after Ian, Post 303 still reeked of the noxious muck that covered its floors long after the water had receded.

“The insurance adjuster told us that it would cost $122,000 minimum just to gut the building. We just did it ourselves. All volunteers. People just said, ‘show me what to do.’ And they did it,” said American Legion Auxiliary District 13 President Jan Farrington, who pointed to post window sills that just days earlier held bodies of dead fish. Still, Farrington found reasons for gratitude. “In the darkest days that this district has ever seen, the support from the department and the support that posts around the nation have given us has just been incredible,” she said.

Shortly after the hurricane, the Departments of Illinois and Indiana American Legion Families joined efforts to collect more than $20,000 worth of relief items. “That tells you, at a time when inflation is killing us, and gas prices are killing us, our people are incredibly generous when they are helping each other,” Past National Commander and Illinois Adjutant Marty Conatser said to National Headquarters after he personally delivered supplies to Florida in October.

Diapers, baby formula, nonperishable foods, building materials and cleaning supplies were needed early on. As the supply chain was restored, storage became an issue and now it is financial relief that is most beneficial. “Money gives us the greatest flexibility in terms of purchasing items that are truly needed,” Hoppner said. “People can also visit our department website to read updates about our relief efforts and how they can contribute.”

Substantial damage to his own home did not stop Post 274 Commander William Bullock from leading clean-up efforts at his Fort Myers Beach post, which was gutted after heavy water damage. “We’re going to be open real soon,” the Vietnam veteran vowed.

The gap in recovery between the insured and uninsured is very real, according to Department of Florida Chaplain Barry Roberts. “If buildings were flooded from the storm surge, the insurance companies are not wanting to support that claim unless you had flood insurance. It doesn’t make a lot of sense since the flooding occurred from the hurricane in the first place. For example, the post in Bonita Springs had roof damage. So, the water entered the building from the roof and storm surge, so it was both,” Roberts said. “It’s just sad that so many people lost everything.”