With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on their home in Hollywood, Florida, Elizabeth and Chris Rodriguez packed their belongings and their 12-year-old daughter Kurisma in a car and fled west.
24 hours later, they were sitting at a neatly appointed breakfast table, enjoying orange juice, coffee, and a basket of croissants.
“We started looking for a place to go, and we found Bob and Juan,” Elizabeth said.
The Rodriguez family currently occupies two bedrooms in the home of Juan Maldonado and Bob Leibensperger, a married couple in Kissimmee, who registered for an Airbnb’s Disaster Response Tool, which allows hosts to offer their rooms, free of charge, to people displaced by natural or manmade disasters.
With no hotels available, the tool was a godsend for the East Coast family, who raced to send a request when they saw Maldonado and Leibensperger’s posting, fearing they would be late.
“It was relief, being that we had no options other than a shelter. It eased our minds because we knew were going central, away from the coasts,” Elizabeth said.
Airbnb launched the tool in 2013, inspired by the generosity of its hosts — many of whom tried, unsuccessfully, to open their homes through the room-sharing service during Superstorm Sandy.
“Our system wasn’t set up to support free emergency housing, so we worked to make the necessary changes to help our community support people in need,” company founder Nathan Blecharczyk said in a press release.
Tampa Airbnb host Danielle Ferrari, who took in a couple from South Florida, said she didn’t really think about “why” before signing up to assist.
Danielle Ferrari’s home in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Danielle Ferrari.
“I’m used to opening my doors to strangers, why not a stranger in need,” she wrote. “Aren’t they the best guest you could have? And the most rewarding.”
In June, Maldonado and Leibensperger hosted two sets of families who traveled to Orlando to attend funerals for the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub.
“It was uplifting being able to be there with them and give them a few words of support and give them kind of a safe haven,” Maldonado said.
That experience, he explained, influenced the couple’s decision to register for the program.
With Hurricane Matthew traveling north, the Rodriguezes hope to be able to head home soon.
The Rodriguez family with Maldonado and Leibensperger at breakfast. Photo by Juan Maldonado.
“We’re all grateful and kind of celebrating now that things didn’t get as bad as TV made it to look,” Maldonado said.
The Rodriguez family’s current landlord, also an Airbnb host, plans to return today to assess the damage. In the meantime, they’re enjoying their temporary accommodations and spending time with Maldonado and Leibensperger’s two chihuahuas.
Maldonado said that, for him, the storm is an opportunity to be “grateful for the things you have.”
“The fact that you get to meet great people that you would never have met if it wasn’t for the terrible circumstances is the good side of any tragedy, I guess.”
If you’re stranded by the storm and need shelter, visit Airbnb’s Disaster Response Tool here.