Hurricane Ian: The Florida coast is beginning to recover from the storm

Ian was the third-deadliest storm to hit the United States mainland this century. For some, recovery comes with heartbreak.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Just days after Hurricane Ian, a crowd of locals gathered under a giant banyan tree at a motel’s outdoor tiki bar for specialty drinks and live music. Less than 10 miles away, crews finished searching for bodies on an offshore coastal island. Closer still, entire families tried to make themselves comfortable for the night in a mass shelter housing more than 500 storm victims.

On a shore where a few miles has decided life and death, relief and doom, the contrasting scenes of reality less than two weeks after the hurricane’s onslaught are harrowing and suggest that disaster can mean so many different things Persons.

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Arlan Fuller has seen inequality while working in the hurricane zone to help marginalized communities with Project Hope, a nonprofit that provides medical relief services. A few factors seem to account for the large disparities from one place to another, he said: people and places closest to the coast usually fared worst, as did those with lower incomes.

“There’s an interesting combination of location, the robustness of the structure that people lived in, and the resources,” Fuller said.

Volunteers are distributing water, ice, food and supplies on Pine Island, where the state quickly built a makeshift bridge to replace one eroded by the storm. The island’s Publix grocery store reopened faster than it could on generator power, which pleased islander Charlotte Smith, who was not evacuated.

“My home is fine. The lower level was flooded a bit. But I’m dry. You’ve got the water running again. Things are really going pretty well,” Smith said.

Life is very different for Shanika Caldwell, 40, who moved her nine children to mass accommodation at Hertz Arena, a minor league hockey colosseum, after another accommodation at a public high school closed to allow classes to resume could be included. 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 going to school next week, how am I supposed to get my kids back and forth from school to here?” she said Saturday. Nearby, a huge silver statue of a hockey player overlooked the arena’s parking lot.

A strong Category 4 storm with winds of 155 miles per hour, Ian has been blamed for more than 100 deaths, the vast majority of them in southwest Florida. It was the third-deadliest storm to hit the U.S. mainland this century, after Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,400 people, and Hurricane Sandy, which killed 233 people overall, although it turned tropical shortly before making landfall storm weakened.

For some, recovery was fairly quick. Barber shops, car washes, chain restaurants, a gun range, and vape shops — many vape shops — have already reopened on US 41, known in South Florida as the Tamiami Trail. Many traffic lights are operational, yet residents of low-lying homes and trailer parks just off the highway are still shoveling mud left behind by the floodwaters.

In Punta Gorda, near boutiques and investment firms, along a palm-lined street, Judy Jones, 74, tries to care for more than 40 residents at the sparse homeless shelter she’s run for more than five decades. Bread of Life Mission Inc.

“I take care of people who fall through the crack in the system,” she said. “You have people who were on their feet but are on their knees because of the hurricane.”

Cheryl Wiese isn’t homeless: For 16 years, she spent the fall and winter months in her humble RV on Oyster Bay Lane in Fort Myers Beach before returning to a spot on Lake Erie, Ohio for the summer. But what she found after driving Ian south for 24 hours almost ruined her.

“I don’t even want to live here anymore. There is no Fort Myers Beach. All my neighbors are gone. All my friends are gone,” she said.

The worst part, she said, might have been driving past the devastation to the public library to begin applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One worker told her to prepare for and not miss a call and visit from a FEMA representative, Wiese said.

“What if I miss the call? Unlucky,’ she said. ‘What if I miss him? No luck.”

Danilo Mendoza, a Miami-area construction worker whose trailer and tools were blown away by Ian, has seen the places where people are moving on with their lives, where the recovery is already underway, but he’s doing his best to be positive stay.

He considers himself lucky because he has a safe place to stay at the hockey arena, which is across the street from upscale apartments where people go for morning strolls in gym clothes, and the food is plentiful.

“I see the big picture,” he said. “They give you blankets, for God’s sake, brand new ones. They give you everything you need to survive.” Hurricane Ian: The Florida coast is beginning to recover from the storm

Laura Coffey

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