After a week in Fort Myers, Florida, the best and worst of humanity is on full display.
The melodic thwop-thwop-thwop of a passing helicopter draws the attention of a National Guardsman in fatigues on traffic control. Drivers stop to look up too, matching the rotors to the palpable thumping in their chests. At 500 feet, a Chinook helicopter swings a shipping container below on its path from Fort Myers’ Regional Southwestern International Airport to the besieged coastline.
Humvees, and convoys interrupt the stopping and starting at unmanned stoplights as drivers make way for rescue crews, rebuilders, and EMTs. There are two lines to enter Costco, one for fuel, and one for the store, each wrapping an adjoining street for a quarter of a mile. Lines for fuel can be an hour long with many exiting their cars for fresh air and to stretch their legs between movements to the pumps.
Store shelves, already expensive from the pandemic and ensuing inflation, leave only the most expensive and least desirable items still on the shelves; the rest are barren. Restaurants are open sporadically, but most residents have opted for cooking what is salvageable from their freezers that lost power days ago. Diligent homeowner associations that blocked the use of propane gas grills have embraced them as they are the only reliable source of hearty meals following days of physical exhaustion cleaning up the wreckage left in hurricane Ian’s wake.
Gov. Ron Desantis joined Pres. Joe Biden in Southwest Florida this week to observe the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, broadcasting live from the former home of our favorite restaurant, now in shambles in the background.
Humanity on Full Display
Looters have been reported in some areas, but smart homeowners have opted to live in darkness behind the protection of their hurricane shutters to warn them off. Residents are careful to avoid telling others that they have supplies like excess propane tanks, generators, or food as their good nature may make them a target for theft.
In one community, a simple makeshift yard sign read, “You loot, we shoot” sending a clear warning to those who might try to take advantage of a compromised residence.
We loaded our truck with propane tanks, excess fuel, food, water, and forgotten items like underwear and socks. A bag of donation clothes and hats keeps family members clothed despite unusable water (even for washing) from the tap.
But there are some aspects of humanity that highlight the best that we all can be. One large parking lot is home not only to a Red Cross station, a Verizon emergency tower, and food and water supplies free for the taking with no questions asked but also to an animal refuge for those who may have lost their farms. Horses roam the parking lot off Tamiami Trail (41) creating a strange sight across from the busy highway that runs south to Naples and north to Port Charlotte. Dogs, cats, and birds are welcome too at this unique location.
Meeting with one woman to take photos of her damaged home for insurance purposes, she was in good spirits and then, like a wave overcoming her, broke down to tears. “You work so hard your whole life for something and then in an instant, it’s all gone.” She was one of the fortunate ones that still had a home to return to, damaged and wrecked as it may be.
Insurance companies set up makeshift claims offices in the parking lots of Lowe’s and Home Depots throughout the area to make filing a claim quick and easy, and distributing funds and support quicker.
Active wavers reminiscent of twirling sign holders are at key intersections not inviting customers in for Going Out Of Business sales but for churches offering food, water, and supplies to any takers.
Opportunistic salvage collectors adopt discarded household items that might be resold by driving through damaged neighborhoods with pickup trucks and enclosed tow-behind trailers. Usually unwelcome, these collectors now augment trash collection and help to clear driveways full of items no longer deemed acceptable for adding back into flooded or damaged homes.
Everything that is good and bad about humanity is on full display, unabashed.
My niece took a gap year following high school graduation and endeavored a move to the beach. Leaving Ohio behind just a few months ago, she headed south with a friend. Within a week of her arrival, she landed her dream job as a barista on the beach.
Walking to work from a rented beach house just two blocks back from the sand, her days were filled making smoothies and coffees for tourists and locals with a view of lapping waves, and evening sunsets sinking into the sea on her path home.
She saved up for a car, paid it off completely before she left, and had enough money to support herself without work for six months.
Her employer, looking for good help following the pandemic, was gracious and generous. A family-owned business, they provided not only meals for her while at work, but enough to take home reducing her food expenses to almost nothing. She made an excellent wage of about $20/hour in the low season, but looked forward to the upcoming high season tips.
She had it all.
Within days, her home, her workplace, and her car were all taken by the storm. Keeley, her brother, her grandmother, and a friend all rode out the storm safely away from the beach until interior flooding brought ankle-high water inside. Despite an elevation of more than seven feet from the street, the home was still overcome some four miles from the beach.
Empty-handed they slogged through waist-high water staying close to the homes as they made their way to a neighbor with a second-story residence. Her brother in front of them marked the way as he tripped over unseen shrubs, bushes, and debris that had washed in. An alligator swam behind them until he scared it off and they made it to safety.
When the water had receded, Keeley returned to her car and grandmother’s home to find the vehicle had been completely submerged. Tow trucks are a constant sight in the 168-home community often removing two on the bed and towing a third behind it 14 hours a day, dawn to dusk. She hasn’t had the heart to have hers hauled away yet.
Her employer met with other Fort Myers Beach, Fla business owners (separate from the town of Fort Myers, Florida) on Saturday, Oct 8th, to discuss plans for rebuilding the beachfront. The barrier island suffered the worst of the storm surge and is the focus of search and rescue operations. The current estimate for rebuilding the beachfront boardwalk with its own “Times Square” is one to three years and owners of several establishments will head elsewhere for the immediate future to open businesses. Hearing that business owners in the area would relocate rather than build it back reduced her remaining hopes of an eventual return to the life she’d built for herself and loved.
But there’s new hope too. This industrious young woman is ready to stick it out and as the community rebuilds, she’d like to open a coffee shop of her own. With a literal clean slate, her chances of success increase. Investors will be hungry to jump in on the ground floor and she won’t have legacy competitors to diminish her chances for success.
Why Did So Many Stay?
Many have asked why so many stayed behind in Lee County, Florida, and in retrospect, it seems like a fair question. Within 48 hours prior to landfall, Lee County was not even in the storm’s cone. Tampa, a two-hour drive north was Ian’s critical path and most that would flee the storm would take Interstate 75 north where they would encounter it directly, perhaps while waiting on the road itself. Hotels and rental homes were occupied to capacity further complicating the situation even if one were able to get off the road quickly enough.
Others have evacuated in the past only to find that the storm never hit, adding cost, and disruption unnecessarily.
Stalwart Floridians like my parent’s octogenarian neighbor rode out Hurricane Charlie despite a direct hit, decades ago and felt somewhat impervious to the potential damage. Charlie, also a Category 4 hurricane, could have fit inside the eye of this storm.
In fact, when Ian left Cuba it had been reduced to a Category 2 hurricane which is hardly capable of the kind of destruction observed when the Category 4 (one mph winds short of Category 5) made landfall.
A reduced threat hours north of Fort Myers, left a relaxed and vulnerable contingent until it was too late to escape.
Mobile home communities are littered with stoves, cabinets, and personal effects flung throughout and into adjacent neighborhoods. Halves of homes hung in remaining trees that withstood both the storm and its contents.
Neighborhoods everywhere collect fallen palm fronds into one pile, general trash into another, and special “hurricane” trash of contaminated goods and ruined furniture into a third. Try as they might (and they are trying hard) Waste Management struggled to collect the normal loads.
Among the most heartbreaking of scenes are convoys of rescue boats returning from shore, wet and dripping onto the pavement with the look of devastation and frustration among the crews. The mere presence of these convoys is a constant reminder that some were not as fortunate as most to have escaped with their lives.
Never The Same
The iconic boardwalk on Fort Myers Beach is left to cement pylons and structures that have survived every other storm for as long as 100 years amount to a pile of brightly colored toothpicks from aerial coverage.
Beachfront homes will be rebuilt thanks to insurance and resources, but the rest of the area will undergo a renaissance. Not all change will be bad. An influx of emergency resources and the ability to start, essentially, from scratch will bring change and modernization to Fort Myers Beach.
But there’s no denying that it will never be the same as it was.
It’s important that as it rebuilds, as business owners rehome their establishments, and workers reshape the coastline, tourists return too. As one social post from the Lee County Sheriffs stated best, “It’s still paradise to us.”