Just days after Hurricane Ian hit, a crowd of locals gathered under a giant banyan tree at a motel’s outdoor tiki bar for drink specials and live music. Less than 10 miles away, crews were wrapping up their search for bodies on an offshore barrier island. Even closer, entire families were trying to get comfortable for the night in a mass shelter housing more than 500 storm victims.
On a coast where a few miles mean the difference between life and death, relief and devastation, the contrasting scenes of reality less than two weeks after the hurricane struck are jarring and show how disaster can mean so many different things to different people.
Arlan Fuller saw the disparity while working in the hurricane zone to serve marginalized communities with Project Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides medical relief services. Several factors appear to explain the huge differences from place to place, he said: People and places closest to the coast tend to fare the worst, as do people with lower incomes.
“There’s an interesting combination of location, the strength of the structure that people lived in, and the means,” Fuller said.
On Pine Island, where the state quickly erected a temporary bridge to replace one blown away by the storm, volunteers distributed water, ice, food and supplies. The island’s Publix grocery store reopened with generator power faster than it seemed possible, much to the delight of island resident Charlotte Smith, who did not evacuate.
“My home is fine. The lower level flooded somewhat. But I’m dry. The water is flowing again. Things are really getting pretty good,” Smith said.
Life is very different for Shanika Caldwell, 40, who took her nine children to a mass shelter located in Hertz Arena, a minor league hockey arena, after another shelter located in a public high school was closed so they could are preparing for the resumption of classes. The family was living in a motel before the storm, but had to flee after the roof blew off, she said.
“If they say they’re starting school next week, how am I going to get my kids from school all the way here?” she said. Nearby, a huge silver statue of an ice hockey player looked out over the arena parking lot.
As three shrimp lovers watched an NFL football game Sunday afternoon on a TV in the shadow of a trawler that was pushed ashore by Ian, Alexa Alvarez wiped away tears as she stood amid the rubble on Fort Myers Beach. She has fond memories of childhood trips with her brother and parents, who lived on the island and lost their home in the storm.
“I had to see him myself and just say goodbye,” she said.
Ian, a powerful Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (249 km/h), was blamed for more than 100 deaths, the vast majority of them in southwest Florida. It was the third-deadliest storm to hit the continental US this century, behind Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,400, and Hurricane Sandy, which had a total death toll of 233, although it weakened to a tropical storm just before making landfall.
For some, recovery is quite quick. Barbershops, car washes, chain restaurants, a gun range and vape shops – lots of vape shops – have now reopened on US 41, known in South Florida as the Tamami Trail. Many traffic lights are working, but residents of low-lying homes and mobile home parks just off the highway are still shoveling mud left behind by the floods.
In Punta Gorda, near where boutiques and investment firms do business along a pretty palm-lined street, Judy Jones, 74, tries to provide for the more than 40 residents of the homeless shelter she’s run for more than five decades. Bread of Life Mission Inc.
“I take care of people who fall through the cracks in the system,” she said. “You have people who were on their feet, but because of the hurricane, they’re on their knees.”
Cheryl Wiese isn’t homeless: For 16 years, she’s spent the fall and winter months in her modest mobile home on Oyster Bay Lane, located in Fort Myers Beach, before returning to a place on Lake Erie in Ohio for the summer. But what she discovered after making the 24-hour journey south after Ian nearly destroyed her.
“I don’t even want to live here anymore. No Fort Myers Beach. All my neighbors are gone. All my friends are gone,” she said.
The worst part, she said, may have been walking through the devastation to the public library to begin the process of applying for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A worker told her to be ready for a phone call and a visit from a FEMA representative and not to miss either, Wiese said.
“What if I miss the phone call? By luck, she said. – If I miss it? Without luck.”
Danilo Mendoza, a Miami-area construction worker whose trailer and tools were blown up by Ian, has seen places where people continue to live, where rebuilding is already underway, but he’s doing his best to stay positive.
He considers himself lucky because he has a safe place to stay in the hockey arena, which is across the street from luxury apartments, where people go for morning walks with sports teams and food is plentiful.
“I see the big picture,” he said. “They give you blankets, for God’s sake, brand new. They give you all the things you need to survive.