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People displaced by Hurricane Ian share their stories from a Lee County shelter

Blonde woman wearing a black top and white pants, flipping through sopping wet pages of an address book. The blue ink bleeds all throughout the white pages.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Eileen Whalen of Sanibel Island is sitting in front of the Hertz Arena, which is being used as a shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ian. She's trying to find numbers of family and friends to call in her hand-written address book that's soaking wet from flooding in her home.

A few days after the Category 4 storm made landfall in Southwest Florida, people were still being rescued and transported to shelters. Here are their stories.

Hertz Arena in Estero, which is usually home to the minor-league hockey team Florida Everblades, has now become a shelter to those displaced by Hurricane Ian. On Saturday, busloads of people arrived from the devastated areas of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.

Eileen Whalen and her husband arrived Saturday afternoon, having just been rescued from Sanibel.

They had been in their flooded home without phone service or power since Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday, crumbling the lone causeway connecting to the mainland.

Whalen said she kept looking for help from others still on the island.

"I stood outside and waved my arms and yelled. I found a man on a bicycle two times. And he went and got the police,” Whalen said.

A police car drove the couple to a boat that ferried them to Punta Rassa, and finally got connected to a bus headed for the shelter.

Whalen said they vow to evacuate next time.

"I wouldn't do it again. It was really bad,” Whalen said. “We had two feet of water in the house."

She left her home with a soaked handwritten address book, and used it to get hold of family and let them know they were OK. The couple sat in foldable chairs outside Hertz relieved that a friend living in Naples was on the way to pick them up.

With a backdrop of people walking in and out of big arena glass doors, Sue Stillwell (right, wearing a red and white Hawaiian shirt and black cap that says Nashville in white) and Jacquelyn Keys (left wearing a red t-shirt and neon green visor that says "Fort Myers Beach" in neon pink) are shoulder to shoulder smiling.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Jacquelyn Keys (left) and Sue Stillwell (right) standing in front of the Hertz Arena in Estero.

Standing nearby was Sue Stillwell. She had been visiting Fort Myers Beach from Tennessee when Ian came through. Stillwell and her husband were planning to stay for a couple months.

"It was terrifying because the building shook. I was in the closet … The waves came up to the window. We were on the third floor," Stillwell said. “And it went on and on.”

Stillwell said the storm didn’t let up until about 10 p.m. The next day, their car was gone. Law enforcement had to give them a ride out of the beach, too.

“It's terrible. The only thing really standing down at the bridge end is Margaritaville, but downtown the shopping area and all, it's gone,” Stillwell said. “It's gonna take years to rebuild because all the quaint little homes that were there, they're gone … I would say mid-island to the bridge is gone.”

Stillwell makes a friendly gesture to a woman standing next to her, sporting a neon green Fort Myers Beach visor, named Jacqueline Keys.

Keys had also been living on Fort Myers Beach with her husband when the storm came. The two women met once they were taken to the shelter.

“We've met some nice people,” Stillwell said.

Stillwell was waiting on her son to pick her and her husband up. And Keys said her husband was planning to get them out of the shelter soon, but it will likely be a long time before either of them can set foot on the beach again.

“Heartbreaking. We've been coming here for 20-some-odd years,” Stillwell said.

Gary Scot Janikula standing on pavement leaning on a cement wall up that comes up to his waist that contains some green plants surpassing his head. He's wearing white shoes, blue pants and a dark multi-colored sweater and a beige cap. Behind him is the Hertz arena parking lot with a Lee County Sherriff's SUV. The sky behind him is blue with many white fluffy clouds.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Gary Scot Janikula standing outside of Hertz Arena.

Saturday was night three of Gary Scot Janikula staying at the Hertz Arena. His 40-foot houseboat was anchored in the back bay of Fort Myers Beach, but since Ian came through, he doesn't know where it is.

He evacuated to the second floor of the local Baptist church on Wednesday morning before the storm hit, and heard glass breaking, timber snapping and wind howling beneath him when it arrived.

"This is the worst that I've seen. For that matter, anybody that's been on Fort Myers Beach, or Sanibel, this area of Southwest Florida," Janikula said.

"I mean, I've lost everything, so it's start from scratch. I'm just hoping I can find the houseboat and salvage as much as possible. But this is gonna take a long time to recover. I'm just glad that they've got this set up here at the Hertz Center. I just wish they had a hockey game.”

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.