Sailing in to save: A JustServe club in Florida rescues people after Hurricane Ian

Orlando residents in a JustServe club canoed to the rescue after their community flooded

Canoes cut across the flooded streets of Orlando, Florida, in the days after Hurricane Ian slammed into the state on Sept. 28. 

All the rain caused Vista Lake and St. Johns River to backup, flooding streets and homes with three to four feet of water — meaning some people could not get out by themselves.

But a JustServe community club was prepared for the disaster, and rowed out to reach the people, including a paraplegic man and his wife, a pregnant woman and a woman who needed dialysis. 

Misty Liu, a member of the Orlando Florida Stake, said the JustServe club formed last April. She was doing a JustServe project in the neighborhood and cleaning up trash when some of the neighbors noticed and wanted to help. Soon they created a neighborhood group and found a service project to do every month through the website and app.

When Hurricane Ian was imminent, Liu said the JustServe club put together a list of people with special needs who might need help. But when the flooding began, the club realized more people needed help beyond their community of 2,000 homes.

“We ended up using our connections to coordinate who could go and help, and posted those needs on JustServe to get more help,” Liu said. 

Noah Liu rows to a home after Hurricane Ian to check on his neighbors in the Vista Lakes area of Orlando, Florida, on Sept. 30, 2022. | Charity Liu

The neighbors rallied together with a canoe brigade, not only rescuing people, but also taking food and supplies to other neighbors while the water was still high. Liu estimated the club members served for around 750 man hours in October. 

As the word grew, others outside of the flooded neighborhood arrived to help as well — church groups, families, a college sorority, a restaurant owner and even a father and his two sons from Utah. People from all ages, cultures and backgrounds worked side by side.

“The morale was so high and more people wanted to help because they thought, ‘These people will come all the way just to help us, we need to help each other,’” Liu said. 

One woman baked cupcakes and delivered them to people, which became a bridge to meet people who might need more help. 

Another club member had moved to Florida from Kentucky, where he remembered a man coming to his neighborhood after flooding there, and parked his trailer and smoked meat for them for three days. 

“He always said if that ever happened to me, I’m gonna pay it forward,” Liu said. “He set up at the park and asked neighbors to bring a side dish.” They then delivered food to people who could not get out of their homes. 

The Pi Psi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha from the University of Central Florida and their fraternity brothers clean up the Vista Lakes neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 16, 2022. | John Liu

As the flood waters receded, fish remained in the streets. Children went and rescued the fish to put them back in the lake. They also swept debris from the streets and helped in any way they could.

“We met people whom we never had met before and many of the people who were affected said, ‘I had never known my neighbors this well, I had never talked to them.’ Now people want to get together and act and serve and serve each other — it’s just been a beautiful thing to watch,” Liu said.

In November, the club held an awards dinner to recognize all the hard work from the relief and rescue efforts.

“We had so many cultures and economic levels represented and they were all one — they were all together. That is exactly why JustServe was created is what happened in that room,” Liu said. “It really does work that service builds unity in a way that nothing else really does.”

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