Music students lift spirits of Hurricane Irma evacuees

“Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep/Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.”

Days after Hurricane Irma carved a path of destruction through the Florida Keys leaving residents displaced and filled with uncertainty, music education senior Melinda Rodriguez put a jazzy spin on the classic Dorothy Fields lyrics as part of a performance Tuesday afternoon by the FIU jazz quartet for Keys evacuees at the FIU Ocean Bank Convocation Center.

“If I’m able, I’m willing,” said Rodriguez of the performance. She was joined by David Leon ’16, Nicholas Rousseau ’17 and music professor Jamie Ousley. “We’re just glad we were able to help lift everyone’s spirits.”

The evacuees, who had been camped out on the floor and plastic lounge chairs for days, were thrilled with the mini-concert. Children danced, people recorded excerpts with their phones, and nearly everyone joined in for a sing-a-long to the final number, You Are My Sunshine.


“I’m not too sure what we’re going back to,” said Dennis, who asked that his last name not be used. Seated on a red and white plastic lawn chair with a National Geographic, peanut butter and cans of soup on the floor beside him, Dennis has lived in a trailer on Stock Island for 12 years. He was one of the first evacuees to record video of the quartet. When asked what he thought of the performance, he took a long pause, looking off into the distance. His eyes filled with tears. “I think it was a really beautiful thing.”

Peter MacNeill

Peter MacNeill is a former professional tour guide in Washington, D.C., now living in Key West. MacNeill went to the Keys for a brief vacation two-and-a-half years ago and never left. (“That’s Key West for you,” he said, laughing.) He admitted he was concerned when he saw the musicians setting up that he wouldn’t like the music. He needn’t have worried.

“Everyone here has been great,” said MacNeill. “The Red Cross has been great, the police and EMTs have been great. And now this music is great.”

“It was really nice seeing how people reacted,” said Rousseau, a jazz performance graduate. “Sometimes when you play live, you don’t get that reaction.”

Deon Robinson and daughter Jada

Deon Robinson lives in Key West where she’s a server at a local restaurant. She came to the shelter with her three children, 16-year-old son Javia, 3-and-a-half-year-old son Jaydin and 18-month-old daughter Jada. The performances provided a brief diversion from her concerns about how she is going to earn a living if the restaurant is closed for an extended period of time.

“I’ll work two jobs if I have to,” said Robinson. “Life always goes on for the adults, but this hurricane has been devastating and frustrating for the children. This music is something different. Something nice.”

Immediately after the jazz quartet finished, members of the FIU Band performed for the evacuees outside the arena.

“Bring out the drumline,” a woman shouted. There was more dancing and videos made. EMTs in attendance said the performances were the perfect antidote to lighten a somber mood.

Manuel Orellana

Trumpet player Manuel Orellana wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to play for the evacuees — despite not having his horn. The junior had put his trumpet in his car, along with other valuables, prior to the storm for safekeeping. A tree fell on top of the vehicle, making it — and his beloved trumpet — inaccessible.

“I didn’t even care,” said Orellana. “I knew if I could get here, I could borrow a horn from the School of Music.” The hustle was worth it.

“Honestly, I feel a lot better after playing,” he said. “I want to do a lot more, too. There are people in far worse circumstances than I’m in. It feels good to bring a smile to their faces.”

More performances from School of Music students, faculty, professors and alumni are planned in the days ahead.