Tampa volunteers help elderly fill sandbags ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa

They became friends at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. Now they’re helping Tampa seniors prepare for the tropical storm.
Jae Passmore, 32, helps Tampa residents at Macfarlane Park fill and tie sandbags to secure their homes against Tropical Storm Elsa.
Jae Passmore, 32, helps Tampa residents at Macfarlane Park fill and tie sandbags to secure their homes against Tropical Storm Elsa. [ Photo provided by Jae Passmore ]
Published July 6, 2021|Updated July 6, 2021

TAMPA — When Jae Passmore and her mother arrived at Macfarlane Park in Tampa on Monday, it was already packed with community members looking to fill sandbags ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa.

Many were elderly — Passmore watched a man on crutches attempt to shovel sand and a woman in a leg brace approach the pit. One older woman, near tears, told Passmore she’d had a stroke the week before, and was overwhelmed in the heat of the bright, cloudless day. While a few city staffers handed out bags, Passmore, 32, said she didn’t see anyone helping residents in need fill them, or offer to load the weighty storm sacks into their cars.

“We ended up doing about 50 sandbags, myself and my partner,” said Passmore, who worked in hurricane preparedness as part of the Florida National Guard for over a decade. “Just giving them away to people in need, because there was no mechanism in place for several disabled and elderly people. There’s nobody out here to even teach people how to fill sandbags.”

Janelle McGregor, community partnership manager at the city of Tampa, which coordinated the effort at Macfarlane and two other locations, said the city had a handful of staffers at each site to assist those who needed it.

Passmore stayed put and used social media to recruit the help of friends she’d met at last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Today, eight of them have organized an ad hoc volunteer effort to aid in the community’s Tropical Storm Elsa preparedness, filling and loading sandbags amid a sea of people gathering at the event.

“We had to do our own bagging,” said Lujana Powell, a 69-year-old Tampa resident, who described a congested scene with “hundreds” of residents lining the park. “So those girls, they’re busting their butts.”

Powell, who lives alone, said she was grateful for the help she received from the young volunteers, who carried the bags to the bed of her truck. She said if there was city staffing the event, she didn’t meet them.

Passmore said the volunteers stayed until the city ran out of sand and stopped handing out bags at noon. The group also brought extra shovels and provided water to residents waiting in line in the heat.

“I’m really worried that somebody might have a heat injury, if people aren’t used to doing this type of labor,” Passmore said. “The message has changed from protests to doing community work, but the mission of providing safety to people in our community is still the same. Because I just really think the city could have provided a better way to do this — it’s kind of like a free-for-all.”