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How the FAU Softball Team Supported a Teammate and Brought Restoration to a Community After a Devastating Hurricane

As Hurricane Ian moved closer to Florida’s western coast, Riley Ennis found herself habitually checking projections of the storm’s path. A native of Fort Myers – where the storm was expected to make landfall – the Florida Atlantic softball senior wanted to know as much as she could about what was to come.


Riley and her brother, also an FAU student, were in Boca Raton, two hours away from their home. Mom and dad, Heather and Peter Ennis, were at home in Fort Myers. The family group chat stayed active in the lead-up to the hurricane making landfall, with updates on the weather, the latest forecasts of the hurricane’s path, and reassurances of safety.


Native Floridians, the Ennis family had been through hurricanes before, but this one… this one was different.

“Honestly, I was internally freaking out,” Riley said, recalling her own thoughts when the hurricane began to roll in. “I tried, on the outside, to hold it together. We’ve been hit by hurricanes before; in my mind, I kept trying to tell myself ‘everything is going to be just fine’. Being two hours away, I think, made me freak out a little bit more; in the past, when there’s been storms or hurricanes, I’ve been with my parents. So sitting in my apartment [in Boca], watching the projections just creep more and more literally toward my house… it definitely took me quite a few hours to process.”
“When school got cancelled [at FAU] on Tuesday, I was like ‘oh yeah, I can get more homework done tonight’,” she added. “Then I’m like… oh my God, I’m two hours away and my school is getting cancelled because of a hurricane that’s going to hit my house.”

In the midst of Hurricane Ian’s arrival, tears were shed – “I’m a very emotional person, I’m not going to hold back… there was a lot of crying,” Riley said – but her thought processes in those same moments surprised even herself.

“All of the memories that I had, the physical places that I would visit were just going to be wiped away,” Riley said. “Birthday parties ten years ago on Fort Myers Beach, or boats we would take out on the water… I never would have thought that those things would impact me emotionally ten years later. My parents met at Fort Myers Beach. It’s a lot of things that I never thought would make me emotional so many years later, but they did.”

Cell service was spotty for a time as the largest gales of the storm hit, but text messages would still sneak through here and there. Updates from Fort Myers were welcomed in Boca Raton, even if the initial message or the quick reply took a while to be delivered.


When Hurricane Ian arrived in Fort Myers, the Ennis house was in a precarious position – some twenty-five minutes inland from the beach, their neighborhood is nevertheless still surrounded by water. A pair of lakes sit on one side of the neighborhood, while a canal that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico is on the other side.


In Riley’s words, conveying an image first described by her parents, as the hurricane hit, “it was like a river, though the neighborhood, from the canal to the lake. Just like one body of water through the entire neighborhood.”


As she looked back at her family group chat from the day that the hurricane hit, Riley got a lump in her throat more than once as memories from the day – just one week prior – were recalled.


At 11 am, the projections said that Ian should hit Fort Myers within a couple of hours. By noon, security cameras from Peter Ennis’ restaurants on Fort Myers Beach showed several feet of water already flooding in. At 2:44, the front yard of the Ennis house was nothing but water.


A text from 3:59 pm: “We had to leave. Water almost in the house. Going to Jen and Rich on the second floor. Have generator.” Going to a neighbor’s home merely yards away, Heather and Peter Ennis donned life jackets and tied a pair of jeans around themselves before making their way through the still-rising water.


Back in Boca, things couldn’t have been more different. Good weather meant team activities were still on; sun meant softball practice.

“It was crazy waiting for my mom to text me,” Riley Ennis said. “On Thursday, she texted and said ‘Battery almost dead. Will check in when charged. Love you both so much.’ It was just crazy to me, my brother and I are just sitting here, it’s sunny outside. I’ve got practice later. And she’s like ‘I’ve got to put the phone on the portable charger, I’ll text you when I can.'”
“[At that moment], I was just thankful there was enough cell service for that text to go through. There were plenty of times where I would try to call and it wouldn’t go through… just getting that text reassured me.”

The water would go down, but the work was only just beginning. Departing floodwaters left extensive damage in their wake; the hurricane’s high winds and other elements contributed to significant damage, too. A lot of clean-up needed to happen before rebuilding could even become a thought process.


A group of people in Boca Raton wanted to contribute.


*****


School was cancelled at FAU on Tuesday night, Wednesday, and Thursday, but the FAU softball team resumed practice in the latter part of the week. Prior to practice, the Owls always have a team meeting to get ready for action. This team meeting, though, centered around the events of the week.

“[Head coach Jordan Clark] wanted to talk about this week and the people who were affected,” Riley said. “Some of my teammates and their families had gotten effects of the hurricane – from Sarasota and Bradenton, one of my teammates has family in Fort Myers, things like that.  And at one point, she was like ‘Riley Ennis and her family were affected by this hurricane’ and tears were just rolling down my face.
“She really preaches that it’s not as important who you are on the field as who you are off the field,” Riley added of her first-year coach. “What you do for the people around you, the people you love, for the people you don’t even know. And she was like ‘We want to do what we can to support the community and the people who were affected by this.'”

On Saturday, after practice, Clark called the players together with an announcement. There would be no practice on Sunday; instead, they would be taking a trip to Fort Myers to help out.


“The week was filled with so many emotions seeing our home state hit hard,” Clark said later. “Knowing that we had players whose families were directly affected by Hurricane Ian, we decided to cancel practice Sunday and find ways to help in any way we could.”


Seeing her parents for the first time since the hurricane’s arrival was at the top of Riley Ennis’ priority list when she learned Sunday’s plan. But a few days to process all that had gone on since the initial shock effect of the storm also put her in a much different headspace, one that left her eager to return home and be able to help.

“Every single one of my teammates was on board,” Ennis noted. “Right away, it was ‘Let’s go!’ ‘Who wants to go to Costco with me to get water, who wants to go get supplies; everyone was like ‘I’ll send money, I’ll pick this up’. It was awesome.”

Sunday’s crew totaled more than thirty people; the team, coaching staff, team trainer, and even two staff members’ spouses made up the group. Six vehicles caravanned down the interstate, from Boca Raton to Fort Myers, ready to go to work.


The usual entrance to Ennis’ neighborhood was blocked, but there was a back way to get in. Heather and Peter Ennis met the group at a plaza to guide them through the unfamiliar route. The team arrived first, and Riley Ennis anxiously awaited her family’s arrival.

“I had my hand on the door handle, and I am WAITING for them to roll up in the truck so I can jump out of the car immediately to go see them,” she said. “It was almost like a movie when it was happening, that’s the best way I know how to describe it… the second that I hugged my mom, I got extremely emotional. My mom and my dad are my best friends.”

The hugs couldn’t have been any tighter, but before the caravan headed off to get to work, Riley said her mom mentioned one extra thing:

“She told me ‘Once we get to the house, there’s no crying. Your dad and I are okay, and that’s what matters. When we get to the house, there’s no crying; you put on your work gloves and help people because there are so many more people who have it worse than us.”

In a six-hour span, the Owls went to work. Peter Ennis already knew of an older gentleman whose home had sustained extensive damage; two groups of workers never left that part of the neighborhood on Sunday, helping however they could.


One group started working at the Ennis home, another group started cleaning up a neighbor’s home who was not in town for the storm. Then, they just started walking. “What do you need help with? What can we do” Riley Ennis recalls one neighbor being asked. A large palm tree had been felled in the man’s backyard.


Too large a task for one person, the palm tree was quickly removed by a group of softball players.


Some calls came in while the group was in town. “We need some help down here,” one call came to Peter Ennis. “Alright, I’ll send the girls down,” was his reply. One couple were attempting to carry a load of bricks and garden pavers from their garage on their own; an assembly-line of softball players made quick work of even the heavy materials.

“It was just house after house after house,” Riley Ennis said. “Whether it was moving a tree or cleaning out a garage, there was always something that needed to be done… we got a crazy amount done.”

After the group left, some Fort Myers residents took to social media to express their thanks.

“Hours later, having toiled tirelessly and selflessly doing absolute drudge work, the beginning of restoration of our home, and more importantly our spirits, has begun. I am searching for the words to express my gratitude, admiration and love for these young women,” read one post.

For Riley Ennis, who fit the bill of both a servant-worker and yet still someone on the receiving end of that same help, one simple word aptly described her emotions, even in the topsy-turviness of the last week’s events:

“All that I could think of the entire time, from the start of the hurricane to this moment, is how grateful I am,” she said. “I am grateful that my parents are okay, I’m grateful for my coaching staff, I’m grateful for the selflessness that I got to see on Sunday from my teammates. The things that we preach on the field about being committed, driven, selfless, hard-working; it was so incredible to see all the skills that my teammates have softball-wise transition into helping the community… seeing my teammates offer to help people, when they have no idea who they are, but they know that this affects me and they wanted to be there, all I could think about is how grateful I am for so many different things.”

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