From staff reports
USO of Central Florida’s Tampa-based staff didn’t expect much of an impact from Hurricane Matthew as it made landfall on the other side of the state. Then the phone calls started coming in.
“Around 5:30 on Thursday night, I got a call from [MacDill Air Force Base leadership] and they said they had been overwhelmed with families from Patrick Air Force Base,” said Amy Phillips, USO of Central Florida’s operations and programs director.
The MacDill Inn was inundated with evacuees. Its 348 rooms were packed, and some families were even doubling up.
“They said people were very distraught. It was emotional chaos over there,” Phillips said.
But while Phillips was devising a plan to help families at MacDill, she started getting calls from the USO center at Tampa International Airport. Flights scheduled to land in Orlando – where the storm was causing problems – were being diverted to Tampa. With area hotels packed, the USO decided it needed to keep its Tampa center open overnight.
Phillips said the center – which can fit about 30 people – saw a stream of visitors all night as a group of USO volunteers took extra shifts to keep the facility open. In a piece of good timing, the center was fully stocked with groceries and even had a glut of fresh food in the form of Wawa prepackaged salads from an event the USO held earlier that day.
Phillips and other USO volunteers arrived at the MacDill Inn early Friday morning with Dunkin’ Donuts and stuffed animals for kids.
“We even had one gentleman stop by, and point at a stuffed animal and say ‘Can I take one of these to my wife? She’s really upset.’ And we said ‘Of course,’” Phillips said.
The USO team stayed all day, serving hot dogs for lunch and then switching to check-in cookie packs in the evening as the Patrick evacuees left and other military families from the Jacksonville, Florida, area began to arrive after fleeing the storm.
“It was a crazy 24 hours, but very rewarding,” Phillips said. “It felt like the ultimate definition of the USO, that we are always by their side. And that includes a natural disaster.”
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.