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Hurricane Ian, 1 year later: A story of resiliency and hope

Published on September 29, 2023 at 9:42 am

Floridians are still picking up what was lost a year ago during Hurricane Ian, a deadly and destructive Category 4 storm. Sept. 28 marks the one-year anniversary of Ian plowing through the state, making landfall near Cayo Costa in Lee County.

Ian was the third-costliest natural disaster to hit the U.S., racking up $115.2 billion in damages and 156 fatalities. Peak storm surge levels reached 10 to 15 feet in Fort Myers Beach, where an estimated 900 structures were destroyed.

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Bridges and roadways were washed out, limiting access to emergency services by boat or helicopter for those who stayed on the barrier islands. In Collier County, 3,500 buildings sustained major damage from flooding and extreme wind gusts.

The Collier Community Foundation is one of the leading organizations providing support to Ian victims. The Collier Comes Together Hurricane Relief Fund received over $10.1 million in 3,237 donations since Ian.

President and CEO Eileen Connolly-Keesler explained that the foundation has emphasized the need for long-term solutions to repair and rebuild.

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“Some call us the ‘first responders of philanthropy,’” Connolly-Keesler said. “We will continue to hold the fund no matter what disaster or crisis is hitting our community to make sure those funds are being spent.”

The relief campaign was reactivated to quickly assist survivors and ensure donations were distributed to nonprofits without administrative fees. Funds are sent to a list of 114 Southwest Florida based-nonprofits aiming to provide resources to those affected by Ian.

“When a donor gives $100, we give $100 allocated to the community,” Connolly-Keesler said.

Area nonprofits can apply for funding to support Ian victims and other community initiatives.

The Collier Community Foundation’s journey didn’t begin with Ian — it came at a time when the community was grieving the loss of 49 people killed at an Orlando nightclub. The Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services and the Foundation held an event to ensure nonprofits understood how to prevent fraud commonly found on sites like Go-Fund-Me.

“Our partnership has been very deep for the last six years, and we really depend on each other’s work no matter what crisis we’re going through in this community,” Connolly-Keesler said.

From that point on, the collaboration between the two teams proved to be helpful. Connolly-Keesler credits building the community’s knowledge of fraud during times of crisis to the Foundation’s success.

“The minute a crisis hits there is all kinds of fraud,” Connolly-Keesler said. “Funds start to pop up, and the general public doesn’t know who to give to. All the municipalities in Collier County have the same message. Give to Collier Comes Together at the Collier Community Foundation.”

Connolly-Keesler and her team have been able to gift families with new trailers, appliances and furniture through charitable donations to help with the cost of rebuilding.

By working with the Naples Botanical Garden and a donor, the foundation completed several tree projects, planting 3,500 native trees to deter flooding and prevent erosion.

To continue the effort of proactive planning, the Collier Community Foundation formed Community Organizations Active in Disaster, to engage in disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

Donations to the Collier Community Foundation and the Hurricane Relief Fund can be made online or through check.

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