When Hurricane Ian made a surprise right turn on the morning of Sept. 28, it was too late to evacuate for most of the employees of EquipmentShare’s Fort Myers, Florida, branch. They had little choice but to hunker down as southwest Florida took a direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane, which brought 140 mph winds, more than a foot of rain and a massive surge of sea water.
“It sounded like a train coming all day long,” said Eric Borowicz, general manager of the Fort Myers branch, which is a CASE Power & Equipment dealership. “You’re hearing things hitting your house, your cars. I watched my fence disappear. Shingles were flying everywhere. My neighbor has an aluminum shed in his backyard, and it has slice marks from shingles going through the aluminum like throwing stars.”
His employees were facing their own long and terrifying day.
It was the first hurricane for field technician Thomas Irwin, who had moved to Florida from Pennsylvania just three months before, and as he put it, “It was a doozy.” Irwin and his wife abandoned the prefabricated home they rented in a low-lying area and relocated to his sister’s more secure home. They watched in wonder at the havoc going on outside until the sliding glass doors on the back of the house started to bow inward, at which point the Irwins decided to hole up in a closet and leave the rest of the storm to their imaginations.
Shop technician Andrew Wood left his rental house to stay in his parents’ home, where he was joined by eight relatives, five cats and four dogs. When Wood saw the storm surge coming up the street, he started gathering food and water and herding humans and animals upstairs. Soon, the first floor was filled with more than three feet of water, and he worried it wouldn’t stop rising. “We had a chainsaw to get to the roof if the surge kept coming in,” Wood said. “I figured, worst-case scenario, I would grab a shotgun and start blowing holes through the roof until we could crawl out.”
Service manager Craig McMicken is a fifth-generation resident of Lee County, Florida, and he can rattle off the names and characteristics of all the storms that came before — but he had never experienced anything like Ian. Early in the evening, he received a panicked text from a friend who was trapped in a house with his elderly mother in chest-high water. When the wind died down a bit, McMicken and a buddy paddled kayaks down a flooded street and rescued their friend and his mom. Then they joined forces with another good Samaritan in a motor boat and helped 19 more people escape their flooded homes.
Amid all that chaos, the EquipmentShare teammates were keeping track of each other through a group text. When the storm finally passed late that night, they were relieved to know that although all had lost some of their belongings and some had lost all, nobody was hurt. The next morning, Borowicz and McMicken visited the branch, which had been spared serious damage, and started to figure out a plan for opening the store the following day. The power was out, so they would need to depend on generators for electricity and use their phones as internet hotspots.
Fortunately, they didn’t face those challenges alone. Messages started rolling in from the other EquipmentShare branches in Florida and from corporate headquarters in Missouri. Whatever they needed, it would be sent to Fort Myers ASAP.
“The outpouring from this company is unbelievable,” McMicken said. “The support and everything people have done for us down here, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude.”
Craig Hindelang, the chef who solves the daily logistical puzzle of cooking breakfast and lunch for employees at EquipmentShare headquarters, was a natural choice to lead the company’s disaster response team. Hindelang has organized five disaster relief trips in four years, so the routine of gathering and packing the needed supplies into a 55-foot box truck has become almost routine. But what he sees when the truck reaches its destination touches him every time.
“On these trips, you’re going to see every emotion in the book,” Hindelang said. “You’re going to see grown men cry, and you’re going to see little kids smile and laugh for the first time in days. I’m not a warm and fuzzy guy, but that makes me feel good that I’m able to make a little bit of difference for these people.”
On the evening of Oct. 1, culinary associate Brian Coates, security supervisor Steve Holmes and customer support manager Franco Vallabriga joined Hindelang on the disaster response team and made the 18-hour drive to Florida. When they arrived, they set up shop at the branch office, fired up two flat-top grills and cooked a steak dinner with all the trimmings for the Fort Myers employees and their families.
“We were all here eating, having some beers and laughing — for a few hours it was like the storm never happened,” Irwin said of the dinner.
For the rest of the week, Hindelang’s team cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner at the branch and also ventured into the community to feed anyone who needed a meal. With the help of family members of employees, they served more than 2,000 meals in a two-hour span one afternoon. When the team ran out of food and water, the managers of the other Florida branches chipped in to help restock the supplies.
“It’s amazing to see a group of guys who have never met understand they’re helping people besides themselves and just go and do it,” Hindelang said. “We had people from all the regions of Florida helping us. When we were leaving, the Fort Myers team tried to make us all cry by thanking us. It’s a very humbling thing, the day you leave, because you’re leaving people you just became friends with. You can see the hard work they’re putting in and how much they care about this company, because the company cares about them. That’s the one thing I would say above all else: When you’ve got a company that cares about its employees, the employees care about the company.”
EquipmentShare’s commitment to helping the Fort Myers team rebuild has gone well beyond hot meals. Some families didn’t have power for at least 10 days, so the company provided them with generators, grills and propane and sent a washer and dryer to the branch so they could do laundry.
For the three employees who lost their homes in the hurricane and several others who lost everything inside their homes, The EquipmentShare Foundation sent gift cards so they could replace the clothes and other items they needed.
“I’ve worked for some big companies, and none of them have come close to doing what EquipmentShare and its foundation has done,” Borowicz said. “It’s not like they did something for a week, and then everybody rolled out. It’s continued support.”
The Fort Myers team members have been so busy at work — Borowicz said the size of the branch’s fleet almost doubled in the two weeks after the storm — they haven’t had much time to process what they’ve been through. But when they do talk about the storm and its aftermath, they speak of gratitude toward the people who have helped them rather than regret about the material possessions they lost.
“We’ve cooked out together, eaten dinner together, had cards night, movie night, you name it,” McMicken said. “We’ve made the best of it.”