The threat of a category 5 hurricane is enough to unnerve anyone in its projected path of destruction. But for the most vulnerable, and those caring for them, Hurricane Irma, the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, is proving particularly frightening.
Fortunately, this beast of a storm also is inspiring generosity, even amongst strangers.
Pam Brekke of Orlando, FL can attest to that spirit of generosity. After days of frantically searching for a generator to ensure her 87-year-old father-in-law would continue to get the nightly oxygen that he depends on, she nearly gave up hope. A last-ditch effort brought her to an Orlando Lowe’s store.
“I had heard on the news just before I left work that they had 150 generators still in their store, but they were going fast,” said Brekke, who drove 30 miles from the Sanford Woodcraft shop where she works as an upholstery cutter. “I got there just a couple of steps too late.”
“I was upset,” Brekke told PEOPLE, noting that her father-in-law, Richard Robinson, is battling congestive heart failure. “I’m scared. I’m nervous. I was here during the ’04 hurricanes and I know what they’re like. During Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, we were without power for seven days for each of those storms.”
As Brekke stepped away from the checkout line, the unexpected happened. Seeing that she was clearly distraught, fellow shopper Ramon Santiago offered Brekke the generator from his cart – the last in the store.
“At first, I said, ‘Oh, no sir. You need that for yourself,'” Brekke said. “I started walking away but he said, ‘Ma’am, this is yours. You take this generator.’ I told him that he was my angel.”
Within minutes, the emotional scene went viral, thanks to Nancy Alvarez, a morning television news anchor at Orlando’s WFTV, who happened to be in line behind Brekke. But it was all unbeknownst to Santiago. It wasn’t until he walked into a doctor’s appointment shortly after leaving Lowe’s that he realized the experience was proving much larger than a chance meeting in a checkout line.
“I had just wrapped up my shift on the morning news, I was standing there with an arm full of batteries and it just played out right in front of me,” Alvarez told PEOPLE. “He just walked over and said, ‘I’ll give you my generator.’ We all just started crying. It was ridiculous.”
Alvarez’s impromptu, smartphone coverage of the story posted on WFTV’s website and quickly went viral.
“I’ve heard from people all over the country wanting to help this man,” Alvarez said. “I had a woman in Louisiana call, asking if she could meet me half-way to bring him a generator.”
Instead, Alvarez coordinated with the Lowe’s managers for a second news report via Facebook Live. This time, Santiago returned to the store with Alvarez and was presented with a newly delivered generator.
Santiago, who speaks little English, shares that sentiment.
“He really believes that God played a role in all of this,” Alvarez said, translating for Santiago. “He’s saying, ‘let’s take this moment that we’re all here for each other, helping each other out and extend it beyond the hurricane. This storm is going to be out of here and when it is, let’s remember how we feel right now.'”
“I thank God for all the heroes in the world,” Brekke added. “I’m so glad that there is still goodness in people.”
Irma has sparked one of the largest every evacuation in America’s history with meteorologists expecting the Category 5 hurricane to hit Florida early on Sunday morning.
The hurricane with 180 mph winds hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday night after smashing a string of small northern Caribbean islands. The highly destructive Hurricane Irma left at least one million Puerto Rico residents without power as it continues to roar through the Caribbean.
Irma — one of the strongest storms ever recorded on the Atlantic — has killed at least 10 people in St. Martin, St. Bart, Barbuda and Anguilla.