Russ Warner had only been living in Flagler Beach for six months when Hurricane Irma tore through the beach town in September 2017. But that didn’t stop him from volunteering 12-hour days for weeks to help strangers pick up the pieces.
Months later, on Jan. 11, 2018, Russ Warner was driving home from Tennessee for business when an 18-wheel semitrailer crossed the median and hit his car head-on. He was left with severe back and spine injuries and traumatic brain injury, said his wife, Sarah Warner.
“If you look at him today, you would think oh he’s fine. But the traumatic brain injury is actually very difficult to deal with; there’s memory loss, there’s cognitive issues, there’s all kinds of things we’re dealing with,” Sarah Warner said. “He basically left my husband, and he came back a different person because this just puts him in a different frame of mind.”
Russ Warner had lived through the “Great Flood of 1993” in Missouri and knew the widespread damage and heartache flooding can cause. Two days after Irma, he approached local business owners Scott Fox and Paul Chestnut, of Tortuga’s Kitchen and Bar, and 7-Eleven owner (and now Flagler Beach city commissioner) Eric Cooley to join their small band of volunteers who went door to door, braving mold-invested homes, to rip up carpet and pick up debris.
“Russ just showed up out of the blue one day and was like, ‘Hey I’m here to help,’” Fox said. “That was two days after the storm, and next thing you know he was with us every step of the way. … He didn’t really have a stake in the game like Eric and Paul and I, he was just there out of the goodness of his heart. He was just volunteering. He saw the anguish that people were going through. He wanted to be a part of it; he wanted to help people overcoming the adversity. And he was instrumental to us.”
Sarah Warner recalled Russ’ dedication following Irma: “That was the one thing he said: ‘I want to help people. I want to help the victims, whoever needs me I’ll be there.’ And he put in his time, and found that group of guys and formed a friendship. … It’s like he gave to the community and now they want to give to him in return.”
She said that Russ lost his job because the doctor said he would not be able to work for over a year. In turn, the family lost their health insurance.
It’s been six months since the crash, but the Warner’s lives haven’t slowed down. With three kids at home, one in college and Sarah Warner only being able to work a part-time job currently, she said there’s been a large financial strain on the family.
“We’re barely making it,” Sarah Warner said. “In fact, without the support of the community, we wouldn’t be making it right now. There are starting to be a lot more appointments. The appointments are not lessening because we’re adding additional doctors and specialists every week. Our goal is to get Russ back to as good as he can, most likely not going to be 100%. But the kids want their dad back to who they know.”
The hurricane cleanup foursome stayed close and bonded even after the cleanup was over. So now, Tortuga’s Kitchen and Bar is planning to host a fundraiser in honor of Russ Warner on Saturday, June 30, at the restaurant located at 608 S. Ocean Shore Blvd., Flagler Beach. Starting at 4 p.m., Tortuga’s, will celebrate its second-year anniversary while honoring Russ Warner and his family. There will be a silent auction, a 50/50 raffle and local band “5 Time Shag” will perform. Fox said the restaurant will donate a percentage of the night’s sales to Russ’ recovery.
“I want to give a huge thank you to the people who have already helped us,” Sarah Warner said. “There’s no words to express the kindness of people here and what they’re going to do for us. I’ve never been in a community like that before, so I don’t even know what to say. But we’re blessed and thankful to live around these people.”