Led by BMPD, the Swannanoa Valley offers aid in Irma's wake
Black Mountain might have suffered lightly from Hurricane Irma Sept. 11, but Black Mountain police stepped up anyway, to help a community in Florida.
Sgt. Nickey Guffey, with the department since 2009, ached when she thought about Collier County, Florida, where Irma made landfall. She's from there.
Most people think of relatively wealthy Naples when they think about Collier County. Few have heard of the predominantly agricultural community of Immokalee. Guffey, who visits there regularly, knew what kind of damage a storm like Irma could do to the small community of about 25,000 where nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
“I knew in some of those areas the houses were not as sturdy," she said, "and the damage was severe.”
Feeling a strong urge to help, Guffey approached Black Mountain police chief Shawn Freeman. Freeman, who also knew people in the area, was already thinking about how his department could assist Floridians. So when Guffey called him, "I told her if she wanted to take the lead on this, I’d back her up and help with the logistics," the chief said.
Flooding was severe in Immokalee, which produces most of the country’s tomatoes, as well as crops like cucumbers, bell peppers and citrus. Many of the community’s migrant workers, who tend the crops, were unable to return to their jobs.
“Not only did the storm keep people from working, but many of them lost their homes, their beds, their children’s toys, their clothes,” Guffey said. “And they had no income to replace any of it.”
Guffey reached out to Patricia Wiggins with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a nonprofit organization that provides support for children in impoverished immigrant families throughout Florida. The organization welcomed Guffey's offer to bring supplies down to its Immokalee facility.
Freeman began working on renting a 26-foot box truck. Alpha and Omega Transportation Services, Inc. in Fairview insisted on paying half the bill. Support poured in from other places in the region, according to Freeman.
"My wife works at Lees-McRae College, and they just changed their logo this year so they had extra sports shirts and clothing items," he said. "They sent several hundred brand-new, moisture-wicking sports shirts with the old logo."
In the Swannanoa Valley, businesses like Precision Graphics wanted to help. Sasha Justice, who owns the West State Street business with her parents, offered to make magnetic signs for the rented truck that read "Black Mountain Police Dept. & Community Disaster Relief Team."
Justice and her fiancé Brent Pressley made a bigger personal contribution, driving their own truck to Immokalee with Guffey and BMPD officer Chris Craig. Justice and Pressley were carrying their grill - and 720 hot dogs, buns, ketchup and mustard.
The trucks were carrying supplies collected at drop-boxes throughout Black Mountain, such as Hunters and Treasures Pawn Shop, Ingles, Pepperoni’s Pizza and Tractor Supply. Guffey, Craig, Justice and Pressley made the 16-hour drive to Immokalee, where they stayed with Guffey's family.
Guffey described the area as "devastated," with many folks still in need. "I was originally a little worried that we may have waited too long to take the supplies down there," she said. "Boy, was I wrong."
Hundreds of people flocked to the staging area where the four-person relief team offloaded children's beds, clothes, toiletries and other necessities.
"It made me proud to work for the town of Black Mountain," Guffey said. "It was a wonderful feeling. And I didn't really do any of this - our community did."
Justice and Pressley handed out well over 500 hot dogs. "We told people not to worry if they were getting hot dogs for a family member who wasn't there and take as many as they wanted," Justice said. She described the trip the feeling she got from the trip to Immokalee as "the most rewarding thing I've ever experienced in my life."
"Words really can't explain how it felt," she said. "We love helping people in any way we can, but to be able to help to that magnitude really felt great."