In the piercing silent hours after Hurricane Ian ravaged Sarasota County last September, downed trees, scattered debris and twisted bird cages littered the flooded 10 acres of the Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida.
Executive Director Pamela DeFouw treaded through the ankle-high standing water fueled by Ian’s onslaught of torrential downpours and the overflowing Myakka River.
As she and her team digested the magnitude of the damage and geared up to clean and rebuild, they were interrupted by ripples in the flooded driveway.
Lines of cars came pulling up to drop off wounded animals in need of care.
“We were prepared, but it was still so overwhelming,” said Executive Director Pamela DeFouw as she recalled her team’s efforts working around the clock to care for the animals, all while managing the extensive property damage.
A steady stream of cars pulled up to drop off different species, from ducks and racoons to cottontail rabbits and squirrels. In the days following Hurricane Ian, the facility received 350 injured and displaced animals, more than three times their usual weekly intake.
“We were very fortunate having the community’s support and help bringing in patients,” DeFouw said optimistically.
Today, DeFouw and her team are celebrating a milestone as they said goodbye to the last group of squirrels brought in after the storm – releasing the now healthy animals back into their natural habitats.
“They’re all home again,” said DeFouw. “It’s a good feeling. It makes everything we went through worth it.”
She gazed across the lush, green property while squinting her eyes from the sun. You could hear birds chirping in the distance as she chuckled.
“This is why we do what we do,” DeFouw said with a smile.
But she said they couldn’t have done it alone. DeFouw credits Florida Power & Light Company for chipping in with both manpower and monetary donations.
“Just the regular support FPL gives us beyond the scope of having electricity, they’re a really good partner, especially in times of emergency,” said Defouw. “FPL has always been very quick to respond.”
After running three generators to keep medical equipment powered, DeFouw said she was pleasantly surprised when the power came back on just days later. Even after power was restored, she remembers FPL employees, like Senior Environmental Specialist Brian Fox, lending a hand.
“I knew from past experiences these facilities don’t get as much attention after storms compared to other organizations or charities, so this became a personal concern of mine,” Fox said while thinking back to the day he witnessed multiple deliveries of animals needing rescue.
He had just finished up working seven consecutive days as part of the company’s around-the-clock storm response, but still took the time to go the extra mile.
“Many people don’t realize it, in the rush to respond to the aftermath of a hurricane, animals are impacted and displaced in large numbers,” Fox said. “I'm relieved that their damage wasn’t worse.”
Throughout the recovery process, DeFouw found compassion in the midst of all the chaos, something she remains grateful for six months later.
“It was amazing the support we got to take care of the influx of animals,” DeFouw said, adding her volunteers and staff are also appreciative. “It brought a lot of us closer together and really shows the strength of the center itself.”
After spending upwards of $60,000 in repairs, DeFouw said the facility is back on its feet as construction work has begun on a new expansion and facility upgrades.
“This is an exciting time. We couldn’t have gotten to this point if we hadn’t recovered from the storm with the right support and mindset,” DeFouw said with a smile.
The Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida is one of a handful of impacted environmental and wildlife organizations FPL supported following Hurricane Ian. A total of $45,500 was donated to assist with animal intakes and damage recovery across Sarasota, Collier, Charlotte and Lee Counties.
“We care deeply about Florida’s diverse wildlife and the organizations that serve and protect them,” said FPL Environmental Services Manager Meredith Rollo. “Hearing about so many animals in distress was incredibly disheartening and we knew we needed to lend a hand. I am proud to work alongside selfless colleagues who dedicated their time and talent to help after such a devastating storm.”