The following article was written about Recovery First by R. Hudson.
It’s funny how the most powerful stories arise out of the most casual of situations. A few years ago I interviewed James F. Davis as part of a non-fiction book project. Davis is an Interventionist and the founder of an addiction rehabilitation center in Florida. I had flown in around Christmas time from the frigid state of Vermont and was tasked with compiling an outline for Mr. Davis’ book on alcoholism.
Davis has a monstrous personality and swirls like an overenthusiastic vortex throughout his daily activities; a dashing sequence of events that above all else showcase the man’s awesome passion for his work. But keeping up with him was no small task, so when he asked me to accompany him to the rehab’s end-of-year employee meeting, I thought it might be a good chance for me to quiet the fires in my head.
Expecting a droll affair, I nevertheless had my notebook open during the meeting, prepared to fire off some virtually illegible lines that might later help me convey the thoughts, character, affectations and demeanor of my subject. However, I wasn’t prepared for what happened during that meeting, and by the time the staff began to depart there were few who had not shed a tear or two.
Davis and his staff showed appreciation for each other with gifts, stories, hugs and smiles. But unlike other employee parties and meetings I had been forced to attend in my life, these people and their gestures seemed – and felt – genuine. I was marveling at this when they eventually began taking turns recounting the story of Recovery First and Hurricane Wilma. One by one, Davis and his people recalled the hurricane and the events that unfolded at the rehab during the deadly storm just 6 years earlier.
It was then that I came to life and burned through page after page taking notes. An electronic micro-recorder sat untouched near my laptop, but there was something so personal about the stories being told that it seemed an offense to use anything other than a pen to record the moment. The power and emotion in the room was surprisingly but pleasantly intense, leading even the great stalwart of a man Davis to shed tears while remembering what happened during those troubling few weeks in 2005.
I took those notes as fast as the tale unfolded and at one time had to shield my paper from an errant tear. The story was beautiful, but the way these people shared it was breathtaking. This was a moment in time that one truly must experience to understand, and as a result the story of Recovery First and Hurricane Wilma has sat in my notebook for the last 2 years.
But here it is at last, and I hope that you can get a small taste of the beauty that I found in this tale of a small band of drug addicts who held it together even when the community was coming apart.
When Hurricane Wilma carved a path of destruction through South Florida in 2005, a small drug rehab center was nearly obliterated, shattering the already fragile lives of the recovering addicts and alcoholics being treated there. But what at first seemed likely to end in tragedy would quickly metamorphosis into one of the most compelling stories about the power of the human spirit in a fight for survival; survival from the storms of the Atlantic, and from the storm that is addiction.
Danielle Trevathan was just starting her job as a therapist for Recovery First the day Hurricane Wilma hit.
“It looked like a war zone,” she recalled during an emotional recounting of the event at the clinic’s year-end employee meeting, “there were trees and utility poles in the road, and pieces of houses and boats were strewn everywhere. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to drive to a new job through all that, but I did…I just kept going.”
Wilma had made landfall the day before; October 24th, 2005, with violent winds that topped 135mph. The storm had torn through southern Florida with a force that few had prepared for; at least 35 people were killed and local homes and businesses sustained more than $20 billion in damage. Wilma spawned at least 10 tornadoes and destroyed 10,000 cars in the southern part of the state alone.
Despite this, Danielle Trevathan made her way to the drug rehab center through the still-settling carnage. Arriving at the 2-story Hollywood treatment center somewhat shaken, Trevathan reported to her new boss, Jim Davis. Davis, the founder of Recovery First, was standing amid a field of debris that in some areas had rendered the neighborhood virtually unrecognizable.
Though the treatment center itself had survived major structural damage, the utility pole that serviced the facility was lying on the roof of another building, its wires cascading dangerously down the side of the wall. There was no power to run emergency equipment, and the water main had been broken, raising the distinct possibility of hazardous sanitation conditions.
Jim Davis, a dark-haired bear of a man with thick arms and a commanding presence, was kneeling among the wreckage in the courtyard of the main building. For him, this wasn’t the first battle that had nearly destroyed him. Three decades prior he was but a shell of a man, seized by an intense drug addiction that cost him everything he had.
That stormy period of his life led to a rebirth and an eventual driving passion that urged him to reach out to help other addicts struggling to get clean. That is how Recovery First was born, but it appeared at the time that Hurricane Wilma would be how the treatment center died. Having opened only three years before the hurricane, the drug rehab center was still in the sensitive “5 year” period where the vast majority of all businesses fail.
Jim Davis and his wife, Debbie, present CFO of the company, knew that they were not equipped to take care of their clients and staff and still provide treatment. With no electricity and no running water, there was little that could be done, and they felt certain that most would want to leave anyway.
Out of concern for the safety of their clients and staff, the Davis announced that the treatment center was closed as a result of the hurricane, and that both patients and staff would need to prepare to leave.
“It was over,” Jim Davis recounted somberly. “I was kneeling in the courtyard stunned with disbelief. I mean, I know that there’s a God…he went halfway to hell and back to get me once before, so to think that we were finished was a feeling that completely overwhelmed me. I prayed this tragedy would not be a setback for the recovering addicts that we were responsible for.”
Then, according to Vivien Gregorios, a long-time friend of the Davis’s and a counselor’s assistant for the rehab, something remarkable happened;
“Nobody left; that’s the part of the hurricane that I remember most. Not the destruction or the news reports or the weeks without power and water; it was the fact that no one was leaving, not even after Jim ordered us to do so.” Overcome with emotion as she recalled the event, Vivien paused to regain composure before continuing. “No one left,” she whispered again, smiling, “not the staff, not the patients; no one.”
A patient walked up to Davis and faced him in the middle of the courtyard with a confidence that belied the surroundings and proudly proclaimed, “Mr. Davis, it took me twenty-two years to get here, and I’m not leaving.”
And from that point forward, the hurricane became not a force of destruction, but one of unification; of solidarity.
“There was no air conditioning and no refrigeration, so the maintenance crew set up coolers and pulled all the ice and food together. Then, not long after the emotional scene in the courtyard, we had a party! We cooked all of the food on the grills in the courtyard, and we talked. We cleaned up. It felt better. It was surreal, and it was one of those things you never forget.”
At the end of her rather unusual first day at the hurricane-stricken rehab, Danielle Trevathan had the chance to go home. Her inland community was largely spared of substantial damage and still had power, water and safe roads; none of which tempted Trevathan.
“I couldn’t imagine going home to a shower and electricity when I knew none of these people could. So I just stayed.”
And she wasn’t the only one. Nearly every person who was working or who was a client at the time the hurricane touched down stayed despite the uncomfortable conditions. The treatment center essentially resumed operations not by its customary rules and procedures, but by the integrity and sheer willpower of its people alone.
Toilets were filled from buckets for three days before the water was restored. Daily supply runs for basic food items required hours of driving across an eerie, difficult-to-comprehend landscape of destruction. Daily group expeditions to the Red Cross and US Army trailers provided much needed ice, water and the occasional MRE.
In the rest of the state, Floridians counted their losses and their blessings and began moving on, but the road ahead would be long and difficult and require the assistance of the US military. But at Recovery First, still unassisted by repair or utility crews, candles and flashlights lit late night discussions and therapy sessions. No one complained, and no one left.
Leila MacPherson, a tall, fiery woman who directs the treatment center’s Intensive Outpatient Program, knows the story of Hurricane Wilma all too well and, despite the havoc it wrought, nevertheless recalls it fondly;
“They had nothing. No power, no water, no safe haven. They had nothing but spirit in the rain.”
After nearly two weeks had passed, the time came to pay the staff, and the rehab center was not in any position to do so. The staff, represented by Maintenance Supervisor Richard Jasper, told Davis that they were not worried about getting paid. But Davis took the funds out of his family’s personal savings and ensured that everyone was taken care of anyway.
Three weeks went by with no power, and still no one left.
Then Davis – who had done volunteer work for Florida Power & Light Company as a crisis intervention specialist – got a call from one of the guys he had worked with there – checking up on him amid the disaster of the hurricane. Davis responded that the treatment facility was still without power, but that everyone was ok.
The next day, an FPL truck arrived and installed a new utility pole; the electricity was finally restored.
Over time, the city was cleaned up; only partially with the help of $1 billion in emergency funds from FEMA. Recovery First survived on its own gritty merit and eventually expanded and increased the services it offers to struggling addicts and alcoholics.
Six years after the hurricane, the staff of the clinic presented the Davis’ with a scrapbook and a story commemorating the event during their company Christmas party. The emotion in the room was evident as Jim Davis told his people;
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger. All of you make me a stronger person every day…you make me look good – and that’s not an easy job.”
Today Recovery First is thriving and so are the many people who come to the treatment center seeking freedom from addiction and alcoholism. Now widely considered one of the most intensive treatment centers in the nation, the clinic has plans to fund and equip a 2nd responder vehicle that will be manned by their staff and sent to respond to US disasters.
So in a way, for the clients and staff of Recovery First, the hurricane inspired the solidarity needed to survive not only the disaster that was hurricane Wilma, but also the disaster that is the disease of addiction and alcoholism. Ultimately, the hurricane was just another metaphor for a struggle and the resulting gift that comes with triumph – triumph over a storm, or triumph over an addiction. Whatever the case may be, Hurricane Wilma only made Recovery First stronger. Says Leila MacPherson;
“Who won the hurricane? We did.”