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Veterans’ retreat in Ruskin battles to recover from Hurricane Idalia

My Warrior’s Place confronts unprecedented damage; volunteers step up.
 
Kelly Kowall stands near a pile of seat and sofa cushions salvaged from flooded cottages Wednesday at My Warrior's Place, a retreat for veterans, first responders and Gold Star families in Ruskin that suffered serious damage last week as Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s west coast.
Kelly Kowall stands near a pile of seat and sofa cushions salvaged from flooded cottages Wednesday at My Warrior's Place, a retreat for veterans, first responders and Gold Star families in Ruskin that suffered serious damage last week as Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s west coast. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 7, 2023|Updated Sept. 7, 2023

It’s been a challenging week for Kelly Kowall, founder of My Warrior’s Place, a nonprofit retreat for veterans, first responders and Gold Star families in Ruskin.

Flooding and winds from Hurricane Idalia damaged three of the cottages, two sheds and a laundry room on the 4-acre property along the Little Manatee River. Monuments to fallen soldiers were marred by saltwater discoloration. Some of the landscaping was ruined and all the fish in the koi pond were killed following the Category 3 storm that made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region but left a trail of flooding and destruction along the Gulf Coast.

Kowall, 65, said the retreat had never flooded before.

“Even though we took all the necessary precautions, now we have to deal with this,” Kowall said. “It’s challenging, isn’t it? But I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and miracles happen.”

A dumpster is filled with flooded furniture and mattresses at My Warrior's Place on Wednesday in Ruskin.
A dumpster is filled with flooded furniture and mattresses at My Warrior's Place on Wednesday in Ruskin. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Kowall opened the nonprofit retreat over a decade ago in memory of her son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, who died in Afghanistan in 2009 at the age of 20. Over the years, the retreat has built a reputation as a place for offering mental and spiritual healing for veterans who have been on the battlefield.

My Warrior’s Place offers 17 cabins, two RV pads, laundry rooms, kitchens and meditation areas. It hosts 5,000 overnight visitors each year. Guests have the option to stay for up to two weeks, with the possibility of extending their visit if necessary.

The retreat had been sold out for Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest times of the year, Kowall said. But then the storm hit. Now, Kowall doesn’t know when or how they will reopen.

Anthony Gravlee, left, a full-time resident and volunteer at My Warrior's Place, and community service worker Craig Outlaw remove a section of flooded carpet from a cottage on Wednesday at the property in Ruskin.
Anthony Gravlee, left, a full-time resident and volunteer at My Warrior's Place, and community service worker Craig Outlaw remove a section of flooded carpet from a cottage on Wednesday at the property in Ruskin. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The floods caused damage to both the interior and structure of three private cabins, as well as the electrical installations of the property along the riverfront. The estimated damages, which include the replacement of kitchen cabinets, drywall, flooring, beds and mattresses, and the purchase of new air conditioning units, amount to between $50,000 and $75,000, Kowall said. The main concern is the mold, which is rapidly affecting the walls of the cabins.

On Wednesday, volunteer Anthony Gravlee, 22, and community service worker Craig Outlaw, 32, helped remove a section of flooded carpet from a cottage as they and several others worked to clean up the property.

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“It’s not easy, but we’re here to do our best for this place,” Gravlee said.

Nearby, a dumpster was filled with damaged furniture and mattresses. In front, a pile of seat cushions and sofas from the flooded cabins was being ventilated in an attempt to salvage them.

The strong winds tore some military flags, and a tree planted in memory of Kowall’s son lost many of its leaves. She said she has faith the tree will survive.

Kelly Kowall, founder of My Warrior's Place, offers a hug to U.S. Army veteran Jonathon James after he arrived Wednesday to help with cleanup at the cottages in Ruskin.
Kelly Kowall, founder of My Warrior's Place, offers a hug to U.S. Army veteran Jonathon James after he arrived Wednesday to help with cleanup at the cottages in Ruskin. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

U.S. Army veteran Jonathon James, 27, arrived Wednesday to offer help. He said the retreat deserves the support of the community.

“They are always here for us,” he said. “Now it’s our turn to be with them.”

How to help

My Warrior’s Place accepts donations. Visit www.mywarriorsplace.org.