It was a Tuesday, two days post- Hurricane Irma, and Al LaCava and a skeleton staff at the Marco Island Brewery were in the waning hours of a long day of satisfying the hunger and thirst of an endless stream of patrons. It was one of few eateries open on the island, the others still closed due to storm damage, no electricity and employees who’d scattered to the four winds; or a combination of all three.
Of the two main power lines serving the island, one was severely damaged. Amazingly, the second remained operable and it served the Marco Town Center, where the Brewery is located.
It was the restaurant’s first day of operation after the storm and residents, first responders, city employees, utility workers and others all flocked there for what were then scarce commodities on Marco: air conditioning, a warm meal and cool beverages.
“We opened and it was challenging,” said LaCava. “We saw people who came in who had nothing, no electricity. Their food was rotting. After the second day, there wasn’t anybody that had any food left, really, because of being without power. I saw people with tears in their eyes when they opened the door and felt air conditioning.”
He said 800 to 900 people were served daily the Tuesday and Wednesday after the storm. But the 9 PM to 6 AM curfew ordered by Collier County meant an early closing time of 7:30 PM to allow diners time to finish their meals.
“And there were people jammed, wanting to come in and we had to turn them away,” said LaCava. “It was heartbreaking.”
That Thursday held a surprise for LaCava, his niece, Jamie LaCava Shea and the staff, the sort of experience of which lifelong memories are made.
It was about 9:30 PM. LaCava was in the office. The business was closed and the cooks were just starting to clock out when there was a knock at the door which Shea answered.
“I came out of the office and saw a big guy there wearing all blue,” said LaCava. “Jamie said, ‘Yeah, I’ll make you a sandwich.’ I looked at him and saw a logo that said, ‘Homeland Security.’”
LaCava asked who the sandwich was for and the man told him it was for someone in his group, which was outside. So LaCava stepped outside to invite them in, only to be greeted by three extended length SUVs parked at the curb.
The invitation was accepted and with that, the 15 Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were quickly seated inside.
“I told them, ‘Here, just sit down and we’ll get you some comfort food,’” said LaCava. “I told the cooks, if you punched out, stop, I’ll pay you cash and if you didn’t punch out yet, don’t. Turn the pizza ovens back on, light the fryers back up, and light the flat-top and the grill.”
Soon, hamburgers, wings, calamari, platters of Jersey Fries and other delectables were being served up to the famished bunch, with beer and wine to wash down the feast.
“They sat down with us for over an hour and a half and ate,” said LaCava. “They said they hadn’t eaten anything all day. I said, ‘Where’ve you been,’ and they said, ‘Earlier in the day we were in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.’”
Puzzled, he asked how they could travel from those far-flung locales to Marco within a day.
“I said, ‘Do you fly regular commercial’ and they said, ‘No, we have our own means,’” said LaCava. “They were so happy they had a meal, they had comfort food. They were sitting there eating and drinking and making small talk with us.”
After a dinner that included introductions all around and pleasant conversation, but nothing directly touching upon the officials’ specific jobs, the party headed to their quarters at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort.
“We didn’t charge them,” said LaCava. “They wanted a bill, but we said, ‘No, don’t worry about it. There were piles of cash around and Jamie just gathered it up and gave it to the employees who stayed.”
It wasn’t until the following day that he discovered exactly who he’d served by doing an internet search for the name one of the people he’d met, a certain Brock Long.
“When I found out I said, ‘Jamie, do you know who we had in our restaurant, we had the administrator of FEMA and his entire administration,’” he said.
Long took the time to send a handwritten note of thanks, which LaCava prizes. He’s also proud of the letter of appreciation received from Karen Ryan, of the Lee County Electric Cooperative, for feeding a large group of LCEC workers on the evening of September 13.
“A lady comes in with a clipboard and said, ‘We have a crew of about 30 or 40 people, do you think you could get them in for dinner?’” said LaCava, “I looked around and the place was packed. There wasn’t a seat to be had.”
He told the woman to have the workers, who’d been putting in 12-hour days restoring power to the island, begin showing up at about 9 PM.
“The first couple guys that came in, as a gesture I stuck out my hand to thank them, and every single guy that came in, it was thank you, thank you, thank you,” said LaCava. “There was a woman sitting behind me and all of a sudden she said, ‘That’s the line crew from LCEC.’ She got up and started cheering and all of a sudden, everybody in the restaurant started clapping and cheering and standing up as the crew walked into the back room. I have hair standing up on my arms. It was unbelievable.”
LaCava said his brother Frank, the Brewery’s owner, allowed the workers to order whatever they wanted and comped their meals.
In hindsight, LaCava said the experience of being able to help during the area’s posthurricane recovery has been gratifying.
“In some regard, I feel honored and humbled and I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he explained. “We were here from morning to night. It’s just starting to wind down now that the power is back on. I never would have imagined that I could experience something like this. For me, it’s just gratifying and very humbling.”