Workers cleaning up SWFL’s Ian debris form community in Lee County

Published: January 20, 2023 2:57 PM EST
Updated: January 22, 2023 2:55 PM EST

Rubble and debris from Hurricane Ian have been everyone’s problem for months, but who are the people cleaning it up, and where are they living while they help Southwest Florida recover?

Eric Henry can’t remember the exact day when he made a small roadside area of grass and dirt off Alico Road his home. He trucked more than 1,000 miles from Pennsylvania to Southwest Florida in November to help with debris cleanup.

Eric Henry. (Credit: WINK News)

“It can be a little monotonous at times,” Henry said. “It was rough. It was sad. But we’re here trying to help people get back on their feet.”

Living out of his truck, Henry has a small bed and a few shelves to himself. He starts every day around 5 a.m., working 12-hour shifts helping haul away the damage created by the worst storm the area has ever seen.

“It was pretty sad… you see people’s lives, photo albums of years,” Henry said. “It’s everything. People lost everything.”

His truck and dozens of others, along with RVs and campers, line the area occupied by out-of-town removal crews that specialize in disaster relief.

“We’ve all pulled together,” Henry said. “We’re literally here to help each other.”

Before Hurricane Ian even hit, Lee County struck an agreement with Crowder-Gulf, the group contracted to clear all the debris. The empty land off Alico will eventually get developed, but it wasn’t being used at the time. Now, it’s turned into a small community.

(Credit: WINK News)

Around 500 feet down the road from Henry, on a different patch of grass and dirt, is the Creel Brothers Group. Down from Louisiana, the group has been in that spot since the day before Ian hit and had 35 workers in the area at their busiest.

Stephen Corkern was making dinner when WINK News came by. It might not be much, but he’s happy.

Stephen Corkern. (Credit: WINK News)

“We all pitch in; we all have our jobs to do around here,” Corkern said. “Having your own dedicated spot to come back and set up, it’s a little slice of heaven called home.”

Across the road from Corkern’s kitchen is a large crew from Missouri. Farther down is another group from Texas. Dozens of diverse crews from across the country have been joined together by a simple mission.

“You can’t imagine putting yourself in their shoes,” Corkern said. “But I also feel grateful to come here and lend a helping hand. Get them back to a little normalcy.”

Nearly four months after Ian made landfall, crews say the debris removal job is finally almost done. But the people who have turned an empty plot of land into a miniature neighborhood won’t ever forget their time in Southwest Florida.

“People in this area are great; you see all the signs thanking everybody for all the work they do, the handshakes,” Corkern said. “‘I see y’all every day, and I can’t thank y’all enough for all the work you’ve done around here.'”

Lee County’s most recent statistics show that over 5.7 million cubic yards of debris have been collected since Ian hit.