'It's total destruction': After warm welcome in South Florida, evacuees return to devastation in Lee County
As Hurricane Ian tore through Lee County, some of the evacuees fled to Palm Beach County. They discuss their decision to leave, their gratitude toward those who helped them here — and what they found when they returned home.
The front desk at the West Palm Beach Holiday Inn is just a makeshift reservation table upstairs — the first floor is being renovated. The lobby has that 'under construction' feel that seemed to foreshadow what many guests would be returning to when they checked out.
When WLRN visited last week, the hotel was mostly booked with evacuees fleeing Hurricane Ian.
Candy Anderson is 74. She’s president of the board at Old Bridge Village, a waterfront mobile home community in North Fort Myers in Lee County. The co-op for people 55 and older has a private marina and sits on banks of the Caloosahatchee River
"I can't say enough about the people of Palm Beach County. They've gone out of their way to welcome everybody and make us feel comfortable," Anderson said.
"We were in a McDonald's and there were several power crews there. And they all made a point of stopping by our table and telling us that they've got our back. And that means a lot right now.”
She was among the Gulf coast residents who, often with their pets, found refuge at the Holiday Inn Palm Beach-Airport Conference Center in West Palm Beach. Hotel bookings in the county surged last week as many people living in the epicenter of Hurricane Ian, the southwest region of the state, drove south east to find shelter.
Christine Whitney, the hotel's assistant general manager, said they’re in the slow season but they’ve been 100 percent full some days during the week. She said staff accommodated evacuees by “extending their stay, giving them priority, and waiving certain fees, such as pet fees.”
In one of the hotel's meeting rooms, Anderson told how she and her friends left 24 hours before Ian made landfall. Her home was built in 1984 and had escaped damage from previous hurricanes.
“We went through Irma, which was pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as this. But it's going to be a tough decision on how we want to proceed. We're retired. We're on a limited income. But we're a tough community,” she said.
Initially, her group — which includes her partner and some friends — weren’t going to evacuate, since forecasts had Hurricane Ian aiming toward the Tampa Bay region. She said she knows of more than a dozen people who stayed because it didn't look like it was going to be a direct hit on Lee County.
“We sat in our living room and [local news] said 8 to 10, 8 to 12 foot surge,” Anderson said. “And we looked at each other and said, 'Time to leave.'”
They left last Tuesday morning — Ian made landfall just east of Fort Myers the following afternoon.
Controversy over evacuation orders
According to public data and key messages from the National Hurricane Center, Lee County was in Ian's cone. The forecasts point out the projected track demonstrated the 'probable path of the storm center' and that 'hazardous conditions can show outside of the cone'.
More than 55 deaths in Lee County were linked to Hurricane Ian, according to the county’s Sheriff's Office, as of earlier this week. And more than 840 people were rescued during ongoing search and rescue efforts, which are still ongoing, with county, state and federal assistance.
The county’s Medical Examiner’s Office told WLRN it submits information to the Florida Division of Law Enforcement, who then releases the numbers to the public.
During a recent press conference, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said the storm was unpredictable and that he and his staff were actually preparing to send resources to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Tampa Bay when the path of the storm switched directions. He defended Lee County’s decision, “standing by the plan that was in place.”
“The second that we could, and should issue that order, I’m confident that we did — again, we wouldn’t change anything,” Marceno said. “I also understand that there are some people that don’t want to leave their homes. We cannot force them to leave their homes.”
Ian, a natural disaster of historic proportions, walloped neighborhoods and piers across the west coast. Its storm surge severed Sanibel Island’s causeway, cutting off access to the mainland. Extensive storm surge damage stretched from Marco Island to Naples, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Matlacha, and Pine Island.
'We're living in a tent in the carport'
Before heading back home, Anderson showed WLRN a social media post of her community submerged in water. She paused for a moment, held back tears and said she felt “sick to my stomach.”
Old Bridge Village — the mobile home community where Candy Anderson lives — has more than 700 homes. Kimberly Mahoney, a realtor who works with residents in the community, took photos that showed detached roofs and boats crushing some of the mobile homes.
Mahoney’s sister, Joanne Golden, recently moved to the subdivision from Boston, Massachusetts, two weeks ago.
“My sister lost everything, including her car here,” Mahoney’s said. “But it’s the same story for everybody here. We're just handling food that’s been donated and tarp, and doing the best we can.” The realtor said most of the people in the community didn’t have flood insurance.
Mahoney said her regular brick house in Bonita Springs, a 45-minute drive south, fared much better than the mobile homes in Old Bridge Village.
The City of Bonita Springs recently urged its residents “to keep an eye on the water levels” because the natural occurrence of “sheet flow” after a hurricane is causing the city’s Imperial River to rise.
Anderson got back to Old Bridge Village to find her living room under water — important documents and belongings, gone.
“It's total destruction. We have a boat on the road. We have a Corvette sitting on a sea wall,” she said. “My house had six inches of water. I can't reclaim my house. So we're living in a tent in the carport.”
As residents returned to see what was left of their homes, they gathered in their neighborhood clubhouse, cleared out “almost four feet of mud” and even set up a cornhole game for some entertainment. Anderson said many people are remaining resilient in the face of uncertainty.
“From the conversations I've had, people are crying and stuff, but they're saying, 'I'm not leaving. This is my home. I have to go out and scrape the money together and live in a camper,'" Anderson said.
“We know it's not going to be overnight. We had a couple of people leave and they said, 'We're leaving.' They made it to Tampa and they couldn't do it. They came back. They said, 'We can't leave. This is our home.'”
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