As the thousands of visitors walked around the SUN ’n FUN grounds this year, it must have been hard for them to imagine the devastation that Hurricane Irma brought to the airport just eight months ago.
The hurricane roared through Lakeland on Sept. 10, 2017, with sustained winds of 100 mph and gusts over 120 mph.
“The SUN ’n FUN property sits on the south side of the airport and the winds were from the northeast, so they came, unabated, across all the acres of property until it hit dead on into the heart of SUN ’n FUN,” recalls John “Lites” Leenhouts, SUN ’n FUN president.
What that meant was “huge foliage devastation,” he said.
“Giant 100-plus-year-old oak trees came tumbling down, crashing all over the campus, and made the entire road system impassable,” he says. “The entire campus was flooded.”
Fortunately, since they had time to prepare, SUN ’n FUN staffers and volunteers spent the better parts of four days working to “shutter up, board up and sandbag all of our facilities,” he reports.
“So the only real damage our buildings sustained were roofs impacted due to the tiles coming off. We didn’t have a single building destroyed by a tree or wind damage or water damage because we prepared for it.”
Even so, when people returned to the SUN ’n FUN campus on Monday, Sept. 11, after the hurricane, the grounds looked like a “war zone,” according to Leenhouts.
“The grounds were completely devastated, with debris everywhere and major trees blocking all the roads and completely flooded,” he recalls.
And, of course, there was no power.
“Power was out throughout the county, in fact, the entire region,” he says.
But that didn’t daunt the SUN ’n FUN crew. They showed up on Tuesday, Sept. 12, in work clothes and got to work.
“We started cleaning what we could with our meager 35 or 40 folks, between staff and high school students and a few volunteers who hadn’t evacuated the area,” he says. “And we worked diligently sunrise to sunset for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
It was on Thursday afternoon when about 315 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg in North Carolina arrived on campus. They were headed to Fort Lauderdale to do hurricane security and clean up, but needed a place to stay.
“We offered them Hangar A,” Leenhouts says, noting that all the division’s trucks and trailers — “and everything else” — was parked throughout the SUN ’n FUN campus.
It was the following morning when the SUN ’n FUN crew got the best news they could have ever received in that situation.
“Their commanding officer came in and said, ‘our mission to Fort Lauderdale has been scrubbed. Is there anything we can do for you? We’d like to stay another night in exchange.’”
The immediate answer was “absolutely,” Leenhouts says, telling him that the SUN ’n FUN crew could really use a hand cleaning up the debris that was closing the roads.
By 12:30 p.m., the commanding officer had divided his team into three groups of about 100 each.
“They joined arm in arm with our high school students, the volunteers, the staff, and we tackled the entire campus,” Leenhouts reports. “In six hours, with their help, we were able to completely clear all the roads. All the trees that were down were completely cut up, stumps pulled out, and everything pulled over to a burn pile, which burned for two- and-a-half weeks nonstop.”
“What they did in six hours would have taken us easily six months,” he continues. “We would still be cleaning up from it. And we would have had to rent all this really expensive equipment that we could never have afforded.”
He adds that Jeremy Brown, a volunteer who runs the Raider crew — who pick up the trash throughout the SUN ’n FUN campus during the fly-in — loaned SUN ’n FUN some large excavation equipment “to pick up the trees and yank them out of the ground, and help us cut those up and get them out of here.”
“That equipment that would have cost us over $50,000,” Leenhouts notes.
“So with everybody’s effort, we did in one week what we couldn’t have done in six months by ourselves,” he said. “It was just phenomenal, just phenomenal.”