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Sean Kirst: In post-Irma Florida, finding Buffalonians everywhere

The prediction was meant as a well-intended joke. Last week, The Buffalo News teamed me up with photographer Robert Kirkham and sent us to Florida's Gulf Coast, the day after Hurricane Irma. An editor called me at home before we left. He said the area is beloved by many longtime Western New Yorkers. He was sure we'd meet plenty of men and women with Buffalo roots, affected by the storm.

They'll probably come looking for you on the street, he said.

We both laughed.

Little did we know.

With Florida airports shutting down, Kirkham and I flew into New Orleans on the day after the hurricane. It should have been an 11-hour drive to Bradenton, on the Gulf Coast, our first destination. It took us two days to get there. The highways were jammed with millions of evacuees, going home. Hotels were packed. Traffic on the interstates was often bumper-to-bumper.

We stopped at one motel, late at night, and asked if they had a room.

They did. They had one. They doubted we wanted it. They were cleaning it up. It had been used that day to shelter some dogs and cats rescued from the storm.

We took it.

[Sean Kirst: After a hurricane, even a Bills loss feels like home]

Early the next morning, we kept going. About 48 hours after we left New Orleans, detoured by flooding and slowed down by crawling traffic, we finally crossed an overpass and drove into Palmetto, just outside Bradenton. Kirkham saw a Geico billboard, torn apart by the wind. He wanted a photograph.

We pulled over. The tattered billboard rose above some tiny wooden apartments. A barefoot guy with shaggy hair, a long beard and two dogs at his side walked toward us, along a gravel driveway.

Mike Patterson, who lives on U.S. Highway 41 in Palmetto, Fla., walks his dog Jackson on his front lawn where a Geico Insurance sign was blasted by Hurricane Irma. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

He was curious. Kirkham told him who we were. As a Hail Mary pass, with absolutely no hope, Kirkham asked the first guy we saw anywhere near our destination if he happened to be from Buffalo.

"I'm not," he said.

But both his neighbors were.

That's how we met Buffalo native Salliann Burgio, who moved to Florida from Niagara County. She lived in a little cinder block house, near the sign. A tree had nearly fallen atop her house during the storm, but it hit another tree and was caught by the limbs, thus saving her property – and maybe Burgio, as well.

It led to our first piece, on why she moved to Florida from the Niagara Frontier, and how she fared with the storm.

Almost a week later, it also led to our last piece, because Burgio told us how she sometimes drives for almost an hour, across – honest to God – the Skyway bridge, to watch football with other Buffalonians at a St. Petersburg tavern: The Buffalo City Bar and Grille.

Mike Patterson and Salliann Burgio, with her dog Tasha, in Palmetto: At our first stop, tales of Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

That is how our journey went for nearly a full week.

There was the early morning when I was writing in a lobby at a crowded Hampton Inn in Bradenton. The assistant general manager was at the front desk. Upon hearing where I was from, she spontaneously mentioned how she met her husband, David, in Cocoa Beach, after they both finished college.

He's a tennis pro in Florida, Micki Despard said – and it happens that he grew up in Wilson, in Niagara County.

Brenda Sanders, a hospitality worker at the hotel, a woman whose rich Southern accent seemed as far away from Buffalo as imaginable, overheard the conversation. She promptly told us how her father was from Buffalo and left there when he was 10 – and how he brought her back one time when she was young, just so she could see the place where he was born.

One night, we wandered late into a Cracker Barrel in Bradenton. Randy Humphrey, the sole waiter on duty as the place prepared to close, saw Kirkham's Sabres hat and reacted with a coast-to-coast smile. Humphrey was born in Buffalo. He graduated from Williamsville South.

Standing in that restaurant, he began sharing the details of a journey that took him and his wife, Catriona, from Buffalo to Utica to Michigan and finally to Florida. Many of those decisions involved seeking the best care for their young daughter Fiona, born with a condition called Sanfillipo syndrome.

Humphrey, with his Buffalo roots, understood exactly why I ordered a fish fry, late on a Friday.

He also had plenty of training, he said, in preparing for a hurricane.

"We made sure we had food, firewood and water," he said. "Basically, what you do for a blizzard."

In a place where we least expected to hear it, he said "Cheektowaga" the way it is supposed to be said.

These things kept happening. In Naples, a little city where few businesses had power, a place with everything pretty much shut down, we did our writing and processing from a room used by the City Council. Councilor Ellen Siegel stopped in for a moment, heard where we were from – and told us how she met her husband-to-be when they both attended the University at Buffalo.

The next day, we were paying after eating at Mr. Bones, a Bradenton restaurant near the water where they serve bottled beer and soft drinks kept on ice, in a casket. The woman at the counter, Tara Turner, realized we were from Buffalo and said that she was also from upstate, from Honeoye Falls.

But her sister Faye, she said, is a hospice nurse in Buffalo.

All of it reinforced a 21st century truth. For many of us born amid the baby boom, Western New Yorkers whose parents or grandparents in Buffalo came there from someplace else, our definition of the "old country" typically referred to wistful family memories of distant points of origin.

Still, for many generations of people today who left Western New York during a hard economic transition, the old country – and everything it means – becomes, in essence, Buffalo and greater Upstate itself.

That is the best comparison I can make. Few of these people – even after a hurricane – talked about moving back. Yet all of them felt deep affection, a powerful connection, a sense of origin that may carry on for generations.

A case in point: Naples was pounded by the storm. Only one gas station was open downtown, at least that we could see. Kirkham parked and started photographing police officers directing long lines of cars at that service station, on a hot day.

Naples police officer Jeff Perry directs traffic at a gas station on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in Naples, Fla., following Hurricane Irma. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

I wandered away, downtown. A stranger approached me in a parking lot.

He'd seen my media badge. He had something to share.

"I'm from Buffalo," he said.

At that instant, he proved my editor correct.

He is an eye surgeon. His name is Dr. Barrett Ginsberg. He said his grandfather ran the legendary Moonglow, a jazz club on Michigan Avenue. Ginsberg moved to Florida with his parents when he was 10.

The hurricane had done significant damage to his practice, and he'd stopped by to take a look, and to make sure no patients decided to show up, despite the storm.

He asked what we were doing in the Gulf Coast, and I explained our mission was finding Western New York natives trying to cope with Irma and its wreckage.

Ginsberg believed, correctly, that we'd have no problem.

"So many stories here," he said. "They begin in Buffalo."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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