When faced with an unthinkable tragedy, sometimes the best advice can come from someone who’s been through it before. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida last Wednesday and those familiar scenes of floodwaters entering homes flashed on national TV screens, Philip D’Agostino, CEO and Founder of Valhalla Medics, had one thought. “We have to go and try to help people,” he said.
As a native of Broad Channel and Rockaway, who had experienced the effects of a devastating storm 10 years earlier when Hurricane Sandy came through his home, D’Agostino knew the people of Florida would be hurting, and in need of some sense of guidance. “Ten years ago, Sandy hit us in Broad Channel, and we had the house wiped out by water, the same way a lot of people did with Ian down there,” D’Agostino said. “People don’t realize what needs to be done when something like this happens. The water comes in your house and there’s houses that get knocked down or destroyed, but there are other houses where the water comes in four feet high and recedes and people are left wondering, what do you do?”
With firsthand experience, D’Agostino wanted to lend a hand, and some advice. As CEO of Valhalla Medics, a service based in Rockaway that provides EMS standby services, medical services for production sets and medical testing, helping others is in the Valhalla team’s blood.
In an RV that they usually use for Covid testing and IV services, D’Agostino, Valhalla Medics CEO Peter Mulhausen and EMT Alyssa Elysee left the morning of Thursday, September 29 to head down south, while the hurricane made its way up north. Stopping around South Carolina, they picked up supplies like water, wipes and even pet food and continued.
The team intended on going right into Florida’s ground zero of Fort Meyers Beach but were met with roadblocks. “It didn’t look so bad as we got closer. There were areas with no power, no traffic lights working, police and National Guard were directing people, but there didn’t seem to be too much damage in neighboring towns,”Mulhausen said. “But then as we moved closer to the beach, there’s a bridge to get onto it and nobody could access it.”
Putting it into perspective, D’Agostino compared the beach area to Rockaway or Breezy, the bridge to that area would be where Broad Channel was, and the closest they could get was an area like Howard Beach. “The area that would’ve been Rockaway was leveled. They had bulldozers clearing debris and people pulling any survivors out of the wreckage. They weren’t letting you in unless you’re a first responder,” D’Agostino said.
So they got as close as they could. “We went into a Walmart parking lot in Fort Meyers where a lot of people had taken up shelter. During the storm, there was a shelter at a high school nearby where there were 800 people and 300 dogs. After, a lot of people couldn’t go back to their homes, so they left and went to this Walmart lot,” Mulhausen said. “A lot of people seemed to be shaken up. This one family was about to hop on a flight to St. Louis after their house was totally destroyed. They said it would probably be the last time they’re in Fort Meyers. They just have to restart, with nothing.”
The Valhalla team gave them what they could. “We talked to people. There were people living in their cars. A couple with a dog. An elderly couple. One guy who came from a trailer park whose whole trailer park was destroyed. We gave people like those supplies,” D’Agostino said.
While in the lot, they also received a tip for where to go to offer more help. “There were a lot of other groups there. Church groups, construction groups, the National Guard. There was a good amount of help there, so we talked to another group that gave us details on a 55 and older community a few blocks over that was devastated by the storm and said we could help there,” Mulhausen said.
It wasn’t long until the team found themselves in the BaySide Estates, a retirement community that saw four feet of floodwater roll through, and they came across people in the same state of shock that Sandy had left Rockaway locals in after the storm. The Valhalla team knew the main priority. “These people really needed help getting all the water damaged furniture out of their house. The mold starts growing in a day or two and if it’s not gone, your house becomes condemned,” D’Agostino said. “We were mostly trying to help people get the heavier stuff out since it’s a 55 and older community. Most don’t have someone to do the heavy lifting and the couches and mattresses, once soaked, were really heavy. The mold was already everywhere. People don’t realize this kind of stuff is gonna happen. These people don’t know where to get started,” Mulhausen said. So the team gave them some direction, and some advice that can only come with experience.
“A lot of stuff was covered in mold and people wanted to leave it to wait for insurance to come and assess. We explained that they need to take pictures. It’ll be weeks before they can deal with insurance. They had to get this stuff out, get fans, dry out the house and make sure the breakers are off or they can have fires in the outlets once the electricity is turned back on. We were helping walk them through the next steps because we’ve already done this,” D’Agostino said.
While others were still in a state of shock, some Floridians in the retirement community had already gotten to work with some optimism. “There was this 65-year-old man with his 95-year-old mother. They didn’t leave during the storm and had four feet of water in this one-floor house. He stood on a chair and put his mother on a mattress to stand on, while the water sustained for hours. When we found him, he had knee pads on and was ready to do construction. He was super optimistic,” Mulhausen said. “He said, ‘We’ll just rebuild.’”
It is optimism that D’Agostino knows will carry them through, after seeing how Rockaway and Broad Channel came back even stronger after Sandy. “This is the price we pay to live on the water. We’re lucky to live on the water, but this is the type of thing that happens. But everything came back. Not everyone ran away. We rebuilt better than it ever was before, and I still live on the water,” he said.
Having to return to work at Valhalla, the team hopped on a flight on Sunday, October 2, but left the RV down south. After all, their work isn’t done yet. Valhalla hopes to send another team down as soon as they can, to pick up where they left off. After spending $5,000 out of pocket to fund this last trip, the Valhalla team hopes others can chip in. They have set up a GoFundMe so others can support this effort. To donate, look for the “Valhalla Medics Hurricane Ian Relief” page, which can be found at gofund.me/26708286
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