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News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 28, 2017 and The Weekly Packet, September 28, 2017
String of natural disasters brings out urge to help

Help for Hurricane Harvey

Blue Hill Consolidated School Principal Shelly Schildroth adds to student and staff contributions for Hurricane Harvey relief.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Hard-to-swallow numbers—over 100 people dead, an estimated $200 billion in damages—and an endless stream of images of destroyed homes, flooded towns and displaced people was the closest most Mainers came to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The back-to-back hurricanes blew into and stalled over parts of the Caribbean, Texas, and southern states like Florida and Louisiana in late August and into September. Then, Hurricane Maria made landfall last week, crippling Puerto Rico and parts of the Caribbean, leaving much of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, without power.

All three were classified as major hurricanes, categories 3, 4 or 5, with winds from 111 to 157 miles per hour and rising. Then, in between the hurricanes, earthquakes hit two different regions in Mexico, leaving more than 300 people dead and thousands homeless.

Yet, in times of large disasters, people everywhere look for ways to help in small and big and sometimes personal ways those people who, through only geography, were so unfortunate.

Mainers are reaching out across states, like Blue Hill Consolidated School second-grade teacher Emily Herrick, who has partnered with Florida teacher and Stonington native Emily Polney. Their students will become pen pals, sharing stories and supplies, while Herrick and Polney use the experience “to teach our students about having empathy for others,” Polney said.

“When I introduced landforms and the disasters that occur to our country and other places in the world, the students…instantly asked if they could send kids [in schools affected by hurricanes] things to help them,” Herrick said.

Preparing for ‘a direct hit’

All the photos, live film and video in the world can’t compare to the experience of preparing and living through a hurricane. April Smith grew up in Stonington and moved to Florida in 2001, just north of West Palm Beach, where she teaches first grade, and prepared for Hurricane Irma.

“For many days leading up to the storm, it looked as if we were going to face a direct hit from Irma, so we started preparations,” Smith said. “Water and gas quickly became very hard to come by, [and] got worse as the storm got closer. When it looked like we were going to get hit with a category 4 or 5, I had intentions of evacuating to Maine, but was unable to get a flight out.”

Driving wasn’t an option, Smith said, because the storm was proving difficult to track.

“We shuttered the house, got all the supplies we could, and were ready to hunker down…We started feeling winds and getting rain bands from the storm days before it actually got close to us, due to its enormous size. The wind got strong throughout the day on Sunday, but at that time, we knew we would not get a direct hit here, but we would be on the worst side of the storm (the northeast side) because of the risk of tornadoes.

“That was the scariest part. As Sunday went on the tornado warnings were constant, and they were close. We lost power at 4 p.m. on Sunday, which meant we were cut off from any communication, as cell phones were not working either.”

Smith was lucky—her house only lost a few shutters, and the power came back after 22 hours.

“There are power trucks from all over the United States here to help,” she said.

The building where she taught was “completely destroyed by floodwaters,” Smith said, and classes are being held in vacant rooms in schools throughout the county.

“Things are slowly getting back to ‘normal’ here…School was back in session today, and all 18 of my first graders were there,” she wrote on September 18. “We know we were very lucky, but the last two weeks have still been very difficult and emotional. Our hearts go out to those who lost everything.”

Helping one click away

The Internet has made fundraising easier—click a button and donate $20 or $50 or more to the relief effort of choice. All of that adds up pretty quickly.

The Direct Impact Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, focuses on providing immediate and direct assistance to those affected by natural and man-made disasters, according to its GoFundMe information (support.gofundme.com/hc/en-us/articles/115012229348). It is now directing users to verified campaigns for Hurricane Irma and Harvey.

GlobalGiving, a nonprofit, international charity (globalgiving.org/projects/mexico-earthquake-relief-fund/), is another web-based platform based in Washington, D.C., that allows individuals and companies to donate to relief and other global efforts, and is supported by corporate and institutional partners, according to its website. It raises emergency disaster relief and long-term recovery support: over $6 million for hurricane and earthquake relief this past month.

And then there is the large Hurricane Harvey water jug in the lobby of Blue Hill Consolidated School, slowly being filled with coins and bills. The effort ties in with the school’s theme this year, BHCS Cares, Principal Shelly Schildroth said. The Maine Principals Association will distribute collected funds to impacted schools.