Strength in unity

How Florida’s nurseries bonded together to recover from Hurricane Irma.

On Oct. 7, a dozen FNGLA chapter members and volunteers helped the Orban’s Nursery team repair the damage sustained during the hurricane.

Tyler Orban didn’t watch the weather forecast on Monday morning, July 31, before heading to work at Orban’s Nursery, which he runs with his father, Marty. The previous day’s forecasts for Bradenton just showed a cold front moving toward the Gulf Coast of Florida, so “it just sounded like a typical rainstorm,” he says.

Orban’s crew began the workday at 8 a.m. like usual — but within an hour, the cold front escalated into a tropical depression. With lightning flashing, Orban sent his team home, while a couple employees stayed to help get pumps running before the storm. One of them noticed that the heavy winds — which, by then, had become Tropical Storm Emily — started to lift debris off the ground.

They sought shelter inside the packing barn, until wild winds and flying debris forced them into the office.

“Within 10 minutes of being in the office, we watched the door fly off the barn,” Orban says. “Within a couple minutes of that, we got a tornado warning.”

At that point, it was too late to do anything but wait – and watch the tornado tear apart the barn 30 feet from them.

“I was standing at the window watching debris blow out where the door flew off, and all of a sudden, a sidewall lifted up and blew past my face, up over the top of the office,” Orban says. “That’s when the roof blew off; the wind just picked up the whole thing.”

Almost as suddenly as it appeared, the tornado faded. The packing barn, home to the wholesale nursery’s annual Open House, took the biggest hit. Shade houses and greenhouses also sustained damage.

“We lost the majority of screen that we had on our shade structures, and at least 50 percent of the plastic we had up,” says Orban, who had 70 houses covered in plastic. “We had just finished putting that up ourselves, so that was pretty heartbreaking.”

Overall, Orban’s plants and equipment fared better than its facilities – which required massive repairs and rebuilding. “We got pretty lucky with our plants,” says Orban, bracing for the nursery’s busiest time of year when it sells hundreds of thousands of poinsettias. “The biggest problem was just not having enough labor to do everything we needed to do with the plants, because we were spending so much time doing repairs.”

He didn’t know help was already rallying across the state.

Double hit

Ed Bravo, who’d been elected president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association (FNGLA) just one month earlier, received a call that day from a former employee who grew up in Bradenton. He’d seen a photo of Orban’s tornado damage on Facebook, and asked if Bravo could coordinate any help through FNGLA. Bravo immediately phoned Marty Orban to check in.

“They were still in shock when I called,” says Bravo, who owns Big Trees Plantation, Inc. in Gainesville. Bravo started asking other chapter members in Orban’s area to drive by the nursery and report the damage. Then, he asked if they’d be willing to help the tornado-stricken business get back on its feet.

While Bravo began coordinating materials and volunteers for a work day at Orban’s, an even bigger storm started brewing. As Hurricane Irma hurled toward Florida’s coast, Bravo realized more destruction was on the way.

The most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, Irma peaked as a Category 5 when it hit the Caribbean island of Barbuda on Sept. 6. Sustaining winds of 185 m.p.h. for 37 hours, it became the first Category 4 to make U.S. landfall in over a decade.

Orban had just finishing pulling shade back onto his shade houses when the second storm hit.

“We lost all of our shade again, and we lost all but six pieces of poly. It was pretty painful to see the way it looked, the second go-round,” he says. “We lost one full range of structures, and two small houses collapsed.”

Between both storms, he estimates at least half a million dollars in damage at Orban’s Nursery. But they weren’t alone.

“A lot of people were hit a lot harder than us,” he says — and they all needed help, too.

Damage report

Few Florida nurseries escaped Irma unscathed. Bravo estimates that “80-90 percent of growers in Florida were affected in some way by Irma — the further south, the bigger the damage.”

The aftermath was devastating.

“When a typical hurricane hits, most damage is confined to a relatively narrow swath,” says FNGLA CEO Ben Bolusky. “For a state that has a $21 billion output in grower, landscape and retail sales, different parts of the state usually make up the loss. But that was not the case with Irma. She took the worst path for agriculture, resulting in preliminary estimates by the Florida Department of Agriculture that the industry took a $2.5 billion hit.”

“Of that, the hardest hit was the citrus industry, with about $760 million in damage,” Bolusky says. “The nursery industry was the second hardest hit, with about $625 million in damage — of which, about $435 million was crop loss, $141 million in structural damage, and the remainder in labor costs directly attributable to pre-Irma preparation and post-Irma cleanup.”

Local support

Irma’s widespread destruction meant that Orban’s peers and neighbors who had volunteered to help weeks earlier suddenly had their own damage to deal with.

“Their operations were in turmoil, and they weren’t able to help,” Bravo says. “They themselves needed help, so that made it very challenging to follow through on my promise to help Marty.”

Still, on Oct. 7, Bravo coordinated a volunteer work day at Orban’s Nursery. About a dozen FNGLA chapter members and local volunteers showed up, and others donated funds and materials. A neighboring competitor even supplied drinks.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” Orban says. “That day, we laid an acre of groundcover and pulled about an acre of screen; to be able to do that in one day was just tremendous. With the amount of work we had for ourselves already, that would have taken us at least a couple weeks to get done. It was incredible how well everyone worked together, and how hard they worked.”

Unfortunately, Bravo says, “there was absolutely no way I could create thousands of work days” to help every nursery impacted by Irma. By following through on his promise to help Orban’s, the FNGLA president hoped to spark a chain reaction of support.

“When we have the opportunity to help, FNGLA members should be prepared to do what they can,” Bravo says. “Within chapters, folks need to step up and help each other, because I can’t personally go and help everyone. The most important reason I wanted to help Marty is I wanted to set an example of what chapter members should do.”

Orban’s workday wasn’t the only case of growers coming together to aid one another in Irma’s wake. Bravo and Bolusky saw countless examples of that collaborative spirit throughout the state — modeling one of FNGLA’s mottos that “in unity, there is strength.”

“Orban’s Nursery was the quintessential illustration of how members come together to help others,” Bolusky says. “We know of lots of instances where nurseries had extra shade cloth and delivered it to a competitor, or they had plants that others needed to give their production a head start. It’s marvelous to see and hear how the industry helps one another. They have a lot of empathy for their fellow members and competitors.”

Ed Bravo, president of FNGLA and the owner of Gainesville’s Big Trees Plantation, Inc., wanted to set an example for other chapter members to follow.
Phillip Marcel Photography

Better prepared

Hurricane Irma confirmed what Bravo already knew: “We’re better off working together than trying to deal with this individually,” he says. “Your competitors have the equipment, tools and materials that you need after a storm, and they’re best positioned to help you, because they do exactly what you do.”

Bravo realized this after the summer of 2004, when three hurricanes hit North Florida. At the time, he served on the board of FNGLA’s local Frontrunners Chapter, and they drafted a disaster manual that emphasized not just preparing in advance, but collaborating in the aftermath.

“The (FNGLA’s) current website and preparedness plan were for individual companies,” Bravo says. “There was no cohesive plan in place for each chapter to reach out to all its members, find out their needs, and try to solve them as a chapter. There were probably individuals doing that, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as if you have a large group of people trying to solve the same problem.”

The Frontrunners Chapter disaster manual included a list of step-by-step instructions to prepare and protect nursery structures, crops and equipment, plus a list of contact information for emergency disaster agencies. Most importantly, the manual laid out maps of nearby chapter members to establish a local support system — outlining “who calls who, who checks on who, and how to help each other.”

When Bravo became FNGLA president last July, he discovered that none of the state’s other chapters had these localized storm response networks in place. One of his first initiatives was rolling out these manuals statewide — but Irma struck first.

Of course, after the storm, the FNGLA activated its statewide communications network: “Our staff divvies up the chapters around the state and we start contacting them however possible,” Bolusky says. “The chapter presidents and board members also go around and forward reports to FNGLA about the aftermath in their local areas.”

To strengthen recovery efforts at the local level, Bravo tailored the Frontrunners’ disaster manual for every chapter in the state — “complete with full maps of every member within their chapter.” He handed them out at the association’s 2017 Landscape Show, held Nov. 2-4 in Orlando. The manual will also be available on FNGLA’s website.

“In essence, how the manual works isn’t really the information in it — it’s the relationships that you build by creating a simple buddy system,” Bravo says. “By delegating, even informally, which companies check on each other, that creates a bond with those companies. Those bonds take time to build, so you need to develop these relationships well in advance of need.”

Members of the Frontrunners Chapter, for example, often collaborate on plant sales and community projects to benefit local charities. Working together for a cause fosters relationships all year long – so in time of need, the network is already rooted.

“This isn’t a manual where you pick up the phone and somebody comes on a white horse and saves you,” Bravo says. “You have to be willing to help someone else first.”

Looking ahead

As the year draws to a close, Florida’s nursery industry is “in a state of rebuilding and recovery,” says Bolusky, who’s encouraged by the resiliency he’s seen already.

At the 2017 Landscape Show, which FNGLA canceled after Irma but then rescheduled by popular demand, “it was very gratifying to see the optimism on the floor and the forward-looking sense of the exhibitors,” Bolusky says. “A number of growers at the show said they had their worst September ever, and their best October ever.”

Though Florida nurseries are back in operation and plants are in production, the hardest hit growers will take months to fully recover. And until they do, cash flow could be an issue. That’s why the FNGLA is currently working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and state congressional delegates to request supplemental disaster assistance from the USDA.

In the meantime, Bolusky says there are other ways for the industry to help.

“If there’s a message to the rest of the industry, it’s: buy Florida plants,” says Bolusky, noting that the state produces 75-85 percent of the country’s tropical plants and indoor foliage. “Certainly, the hurricane has exacerbated the shortage of some plants and trees, but folks who come to our Tropical Plant International Expo in Ft. Lauderdale in January are going to see what they’re used to seeing. We expect sales will be absolutely solid, and we’re already seeing folks well on their way to recovery.”

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland, Ohio.

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