The destruction was too extreme to ignore. In fact, many passersby still stop to snap pictures before driving away from Eva Wolbers’ 10-acre Myakka home, which doubles as a foster home for 19 pets.
Hurricane Ian devastated Wolbers' property while she evacuated to a friend's home with her cat and 18 dogs. After the hurricane roared through Florida, the sheriff’s office had to cut into her front entrance with chainsaws to allow her to get back on it. Wolbers, 42, who has owned the parcel for 21 years, estimates roughly 30 trees came down—many of them mature live oaks, ranging from 100 to 200 years old.
“I couldn’t see my house. Four trees were in my driveway alone,” she recalls. "There were 10 on my neighbor’s fence."
The worst of it, though, were the three trees that fell on her home. Although Wolbers is currently living in the house, one tree crashed through the roof into her living room, making that part of it uninhabitable.
Wolbers owns and operates Kerry On Stables and works full-time at the nonprofit Hardee Animal Rescue Team. She fosters and trains animals in need, taking in hard-to-place ones that thrive in the safe, open space she offers. The fallen trees, however, have made doing this almost impossible since the fences, barn structures and dog pens have been crushed by fallen trees.
"I had just finished my feral cat integration stall and it got demolished, too," Wolbers says. "Now I have nowhere to integrate them, and feral cats often get euthanized."
Her homeowner's insurance coverage isn’t nearly enough to make a dent in the cost of the extensive cleanup. “I had tree company people stopping here daily, but I couldn't afford the work. One quote was $30,000,” Wolbers says.
Luc Dierens, the owner of Eco Pro Outdoor Solutions, says he would have quoted the job at roughly $20,000. But he's doing Wolbers' work for free.
Dierens lives in Myakka, just a few miles from Wolbers, with his wife and two kids, and saw a Facebook post in which she was asking for people to adopt her horses because the damage to her property meant she could no longer house them.
Dierens, who's originally from Belgium, was moved by the dire situation. “I passed by her property a few times, and thought, 'This lady has damage that will cost her a fortune,'" he says. "I’ve done very well and I made good money, so [I thought], let me give back. I'm going to take care of this."
Dierens, 47, asked his Facebook community for help. "Not a lot of people reacted, but two guys did: Jay Magee and Shawn Lee." They've since gotten to work clearing the uprooted oaks. There's still lots to accomplish on Wolbers' sprawling property—but it's the act of generosity itself that's having the biggest effect.
"I bought this place for the trees. I had so many you couldn't see the sky. I can replace my house and barn, but not those trees," Wolbers says. "But how can I stay upset in light of this? I’m no longer depressed like I was."
"I think she said 'thank you' a thousand times. It made me feel accomplished and proud and thankful that I could help, and make someone's life a little less miserable," Dierens says. "Everything she worked for melted like snow in the sun in just one storm. I felt like helping was the right thing to do."
Wolbers is also selling just under five acres of her Myakka land to help with the costs and damages so she can get back to caring for the animals who depend on her.
"A lot of people would stop, take pictures of my property and drive away," she says. "But a total stranger stopped to do this. Luc's help restored my faith in humanity."