As hurricane Irma approached Florida’s gulf coast, Kelly Greens G&CC’s Executive Chef Drew Tait and his team prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
My wife and I have lived in southwest Florida for over 20 years. We’ve survived many different hurricanes. But this year was different for us; this was the first storm we had to weather since our son was born.
We were on the fence about whether or not to evacuate as we watched Irma’s track shift from making landfall on the east to going up the spine of the state and making landfall on the west coast. While we were trying to make up our minds, we went through our standard hurricane preparations at home. We put up storm shutters, gathered 5 days’ worth of drinking water, non-perishable foods, batteries, flashlights, fuel and all the other items we’d need to sustain ourselves after the storm. We also packed a “go bag” which was a limited amount of food, water and a change of clothes for all of us. In this bag, we packed important documents like passports, IDs, our marriage certificate, social security cards and insurance information. This is all of the paperwork we’d need to prove who we are to get back into the disaster area or to restart life over again if it came to that.
At Kelly Greens Golf & Country Club (Fort Myers, Fla.) the executive team met four days before the storm. We were fortunate that the club was already closed that week for golf course improvements. We decided to keep the club closed until further notice. I had scheduled the cooks for a deep cleaning shift that week since we were closed. But instead of only deep cleaning, we also prepared for the impending storm.
We began by removing anything that could become a projectile. We emptied all of our reach-in coolers and freezers and consolidated everything into the walk-in cooler and freezer. A while back, I learned a trick from another chef to help preserve high-end food in the freezer. You take all of the expensive items and place them on a speed cart. Then you wrap the speed cart with broken down cardboard boxes and cover it with a large plastic bag. By doing so, if we lost power, the cardboard would help to keep the expensive food insulated and frozen for at least two to three days. It’s not a guarantee, but it was our best shot at preserving the food without a backup generator.
We finished our preparations at the club and I checked in with my entire culinary team to make sure everyone had a plan for during and after the storm. I also wanted to see if there was anything I could help them with. I told everyone to be safe, wished everyone luck and told them I would reach out after the storm regarding us reopening the club once I heard from our GM.
I got home that night and my wife and I decided we would evacuate to my wife’s brother in-law’s house on the east coast of Florida. The storm was projected to move over the Florida Keys that next morning around 8am, skirt the west coast of the state and eventually making landfall about 30 miles south of our home. While I was at work the next day, my wife finished packing the car and we were ready to roll. We took back roads and state road 80 across the state to avoid the heavy traffic. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in our car or on the side of the road when Irma made landfall.
We arrived at their home late that night, unloaded and settled in. The next day we were joined by the rest of my wife’s family along with some of their friends. We watched as Irma made her way over the Florida Keys and eventually made landfall on Marco Island—about 50 miles south of where we live. Right about this time we lost power on the east coast and all of our news updates came via Facebook or texting with people we knew in the area.
After the worst of the storm had passed, we were still out of power on the east coast. We waited a day and a half to come home as we wanted to first see how bad things were and if roads were passable to make the trip safely. By the time we decided to head home it was late in the evening. We found a gas station on our way that had both power and fuel so we filled up our car and headed west. Driving through the middle of the state, following the same roads back that we took, was a nerve-wracking and eerie experience. It was pitch black the entire way; the only lights we encountered were of other cars. We had to keep a watchful eye for downed trees, power lines, and flooded roads. Luckily our route home was mostly clear and relatively safe. As we got to the outskirts of the city, we were met by a heavy emergency personal presence. They were trying to enforce the curfew enacted by the local officials, but there were so many people on the roads I knew they weren’t going to arrest us all. We kept our heads down and drove past slowly, eventually getting past the police and making it into our neighborhood.
There were a lot of trees and debris all over the roads but as our home came into view, we could see that there was virtually no damage to the house and, believe it or not, our power was still on. We could see that all of our fruit trees had come down in the backyard and a large oak tree was lying on our pool cage, but we really lucked out compared to others. We got into the house; it was nice to be home and to be sleeping in air-conditioning again.
I woke up early the next day and headed into the club to meet with the rest of the executive team to survey the damage. Driving into the club was a little tense as all the stop lights were out, some roads were flooded and debris was scattered all over the place. I arrived at the main entrance and saw trees, palm fronds, and bushes everywhere. As I turned down the main street into the club I could see that past the clubhouse multiple roads were under water and not passible. Almost the entire community was out of power except for some isolated buildings including our golf course maintenance building, which was fully operational.
I met up with the rest of the team and entered the clubhouse. We found water in the kitchen and dining room as well as damage to multiple areas of the roof. The walk-in was already too warm and the food had to be thrown away. The freezer was still at 20 degrees but would not last another 24 hours unless power was restored, which didn’t seem likely. We walked the perimeter of the clubhouse taking pictures as we went for insurance purposes.
Once we got an idea of the extent of the damage we sat down and made a plan of action. We started by removing the water from the kitchen and dining room along with calling a roofing company to come out and assess the damage. We would keep staff off property for one more day so they could handle anything they needed to at home and the executive team would come in the next day to begin clearing the roads.
The following day we began by clearing the parking lot and roads immediately surrounding the clubhouse. We piled all of the downed trees and debris at the far end of the parking lot. Then we drove out into the community and through the golf course to see the rest of the damage. Some roads were still flooded, some were blocked by trees and some had powerlines down. We decided to have any staff that could come in the next day work on clearing the roads around the community. The work was hard and hot and the sun was strong, but we made progress quickly and had gotten all the roads passible by the end of the day.
The following day we began working on the kitchen, cleaning out the walk-in cooler and freezer. The only things we could save were items that were on the speed cart we had wrapped with cardboard. We made sure to track all of our waste from the hurricane as it was covered by insurance. After that was finished, we waited for power to be restored.
The following day when we came back to help clean up the golf course, we found that the power had come on at the club overnight. My culinary team immediately started getting the kitchen back in order, wiping down equipment, sanitizing everything and getting set up to begin prepping the next day. We tested all of the equipment to make sure everything was working properly and my sous chef and I sat down to order of all the items we would need to be operational again. We planned on prepping Saturday then opening for regular service on Sunday. We got the word out to the membership that we would be reopening the club but the golf course would still be closed until things could be taken care of out there.
We had a great turnout for breakfast on Sunday and it was nice to see the kitchen in full force again. We took solace in knowing that the members would enjoy their club despite the challenges everyone faced at home. We made sure to go the extra mile regarding the presentation of the buffet and we talked with the team about how all of the members had been under a lot of stress and we wanted them to feel as comfortable here as possible.
During this challenging period, I’m really proud of how we pulled together as a team. We accomplished a lot of work in a very short period of time and were able to get the club open for our membership sooner than most thought possible. I’m tremendously proud of what we achieved and I’m awestruck by the dedication of those that I have the pleasure of working with at Kelly Greens Golf and Country Club.