Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on Lakeland’s own SUN ‘n FUN Expo Campus and the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) last week, leveling hundreds of majestic oaks, flooding structures, and turning quiet streams into raging torrents. When the sun rose on Monday morning, CEO John “Lites” Leenhouts saw weeks of recovery ahead to repair Irma’s destruction to their campus on the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
“We were fortunate none of our structures sustained major damage,” he said, “but the devastation to our beautiful trees, flooding, and debris from the storm was going to require a major cleanup.”
Meanwhile, Lakeland Airport Director Gene Conrad and his team, who suffered damage of their own, prepared for FEMA and other relief organizations to use the airport facilities. On Wednesday, the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division’s Task Force All American Lift supported by the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command from Fort Bragg, NC contacted the airport about using its facilities as a staging area. Assistant Airport Director Chris Hallstrand contacted SUN ‘n FUN Air Operations Director Greg Gibson, who reported that their hangars were undamaged and available for the troops.
A day later, over 300 Paratroopers aboard 115 military vehicles began arriving on the SUN ‘n FUN campus, preparing to deploy into Florida’s stricken areas. SUN ‘n FUN’s campus quickly became a vehicle compound, and Hangar A became a barracks, even as staff and volunteers bravely worked on the daunting cleanup caused by Irma.
“We’re honored to host the 82nd in their efforts to help Florida,” said Gibson. “Hangar A with its new restroom facilities makes a great impromptu housing facility.”
On Friday, the 82nd got word that their mission had changed and they were being recalled to North Carolina. This gave them some down time, but time off is not how the 82nd operates. 1SG Charles E. Vaughn Jr. came to Gibson with an offer: the 82nd Paratroopers wanted to help clean up SUN ‘n FUN.
“We came down here to help Florida recover from Irma, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said 1SG Vaughn. “After seeing what this facility is to Lakeland and its mission with local kids, I can’t think of a better place for us to get busy.”
And get busy they did. Within only six hours of that conversation, the SUN ‘n FUN campus was restored to full service with only minor cleanup remaining. Paratroopers cut and hauled trees and debris, cleared creeks and helped load relief aircraft with supplies headed to the Keys.
Afterward, the unit gathered in SUN ‘n FUN’s Sunset Grille. Leenhouts addressed the troops, giving them the full story on the good they had done.
“You have helped restore one of Lakeland’s major education and community centers, accomplishing in six hours what would otherwise have taken weeks and tens of thousands of dollars. On behalf of SUN ‘n FUN and ACE, our staff, students, and volunteers, you have our humble thanks. We’re in absolute awe over what you have accomplished.”
Leenhouts stated that with the herculean effort of the 82nd, SUN ‘n FUN staff, students and volunteers, no scheduled events on the Expo Campus would be cancelled due to the storm.