With an estimated $75,000 worth of damage due to Hurricane Ian, the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy might have been blown right out of business.
Rebecca Blitz, the executive director of SMART, is worried her nonprofit doesn't have the funds to repair the damage.
“If we do not receive funding, we will not be able to help the community anymore,” Blitz said. “We are desperate for community support now more than ever. We might have to re-home horses or rethink what we do here. We finally made it through the pandemic. We had all the programming starting. The place looked incredible. We were ready and then boom! Here comes a Category 4 hurricane.”
Blitz drove up to Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy on Sept. 29, but she wasn’t ready for what she was about to see.
She had waited until there was enough light to navigate the roads the morning after Hurricane Ian swept through Myakka City.
As she went down the driveway, all she could see were downed and uprooted trees, and debris everywhere. Two tall trees were uprooted and they brought up part of the driveway when they fell. Large branches were on the ground.
Blitz breathed a sigh of relief when she saw all horses were safe after she had to keep them in the pastures during the hurricane. Blitz said it was safer for the horses to be in the pastures rather than the barn, which is at least 35 years old.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get,” Blitz said. “It was a complete relief to see that our horses were safe and nobody was injured. It was just overwhelming relief.”
Once staff wrangled the horses back into their stalls, Blitz said it didn’t take long for the horses to fall asleep after the stress of the hurricane.
“They’re exhausted,” she said. “They literally went inside, laid down in their shavings and went to sleep.”
The hard work continued for staff and volunteers after seeing all the damage that was done on the property.
Besides several large trees being uprooted and the debris being scattered throughout the property, Blitz said there was roof damage and broken fences. She said a waterline below the arena burst, causing water to bubble through the ground.
A lanai on one of the buildings was severely damaged. A large tree was uprooted and tore through the lanai, which cracked the concrete floor.
As of Sept. 30, SMART still didn’t have electricity, which meant the nonprofit couldn’t get a pump working to provide water. Blitz said they have enough water to last until Oct. 5.
Stacey Volpe, the volunteer coordinator for SMART, remained hopeful.
"We'll get through this," she said.
Blitz said SMART is hoping to start programming in January with new partnerships with area nonprofits, but the facilities need improvements before those programs can start. With the damage from Hurricane Ian, Blitz said those plans could be scrapped.
In the meantime, staff estimated SMART would be closed for programming for about two weeks as long as the nonprofit received funding to cover the cost of repairs, and volunteers helped to clear the property of debris and downed trees.
Parrish’s Corinne Adams, who has been volunteering at SMART since 2014, was one of about eight volunteers helping to clear the facilities Sept. 30.
Adams said seeing all the damage and debris was overwhelming.
“Thank God all the horses were safe because the rest can be dealt with,” she said. “I knew it would happen because there are so many old trees on the property, but I didn’t expect this much.”
Before Hurricane Ian made its way through Florida, the SMART staff members were hard at work preparing for what was to come.
“It was all hands on deck,” Blitz said.
Staff gathered enough feed and hay to last two weeks and scrubbed all trash receptacles and filled them with water. They put the hay and water in different locations in case one was damaged.
Blitz and SMART staff braided tags into the horses’ manes and tails in case they escaped the property.
Blitz said a Panther Ridge resident fostered Norman, a 19-year-old Haflinger horse, during the hurricane because Blitz was concerned that due to his age and previous injury, he wouldn’t be able to run away from danger if needed.