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ECHO takes a beating from Hurricane Irma

By Staff | Oct 5, 2017

When people come to take a tour or attend the annual food festival at the ECHO Farm, it’s going to look a whole lot different this year than in the past.

Hurricane Irma destroyed approximately 60 trees, mostly non-native, along with a lot of research ECHO was conducting to perform its mission of eradicating world hunger.

Many other trees were also knocked over, but were stood back up and held up by stakes. Much of the mess created by Irma was cleaned up by the time tours reopened Friday.

Tim Albright, chief operations officer at ECHO, said overall, there was minimal damage to the buildings, mostly caused by water. The real damage was inflicted upon the agricultural aspects, such as trees and plants.

“We’re in the midst of an inventory. We have 60 trees that were destroyed, and a multitude of trees we have repositioned and hopefully will be able to grow again,” Albright said. “I guess this is the new normal.”

Danielle Flood, ECHO communications director, said the trees make it hard to prepare for storms, even though they followed their hurricane plan to a tee.

“We did an amazing job to prepare, but the reality is these storms are part of nature,” Flood said.

Flood said ECHO closed the Wednesday before the storm, and had tours cancelled until Friday. The retail nursery was closed for two weeks, and that ECHO was among the last areas to get power and internet back.

Staff went back to work on Tuesday, although Flood said it wasn’t the typical work week.

“We were pulling brush and fixing roofs. We made lunch for the workers and volunteers two days after the storm,” Flood said. “Everyone has been pitching in and there’s been a feeling of unity as staff that doesn’t usually work on the farm and come out to help. We’re thankful.”

Flood also worked on fundraising, asking their donors for special gifts to help out, which has also been successful.

Areas that had been covered by trees were much more barren. Losing 60 trees will do that, and the alternate technology center was hit hard, which will cancel tours there indefinitely.

Much of the mess was moved to the far corner of the farm, a mountain of dead trees and roots hidden behind some trees that made it through.

As an organization that specializes in growing food, it conducts a lot of research. Albright said that was perhaps the most damaging thing about the storm, in that it hurts ECHO and the people they are trying to help.

“A lot of that was laid flat. We will try to get the readings we can, but it was literally destroyed. A lot of it is in conjunction with other places in the world. It’s comparison research being done, so the data will be lost,” Albright said. “We’re seeing what can be salvaged. We’ll know in a couple of weeks.”

This would not have been possible without the 213 volunteers (who contributed more than 1,200 man-hours of work) that came to clean up, most of them from out of state. Some arrived with some heavy-hitting equipment to make the job easier.

“They knew about ECHO, wanted to come and some shipped in heavy equipment to move the debris around and clear the walkways and fields,” Albright said.

All this comes ahead of the annual agricultural conference, which is next month. Albright said they may be behind schedule in preparing for that.

“A lot of the demonstration areas did not get the care they needed because we couldn’t get the plants into the ground,” Albright said. “The farm won’t look the way we want it to look.”

Albright did say that the conference will focus heavily on how delegates can survive natural weather events, the steps farmers can make before, during and after such events.

“This is not just a Southwest Florida issue. These things happen all over the world. If there is a silver lining, it’s that we can learn and help others recuperate in the midst of challenges,” Albright said.

“How we react is something we can share and teach around the world. ECHO wants to take the techniques we have learned and what doesn’t and share that knowledge,” Flood said. “Farmers can be more resilient in the face of strong storms.”