How Hurricane Ian Changed My Life Sept. 28, 2022
There’s a lot of emotion and justification for why we didn’t leave our home before Ian, a cat four hurricane, arrived. We would've only saved two cars and a computer if we had. All the damage that happened was going to happen anyway, regardless of where we were. But the emotional toll it took on us was deeper because we watched it happen.
We watched the water rise quickly and didn’t know if or when it would stop. We saw it climb our neighbors' first story homes, submerging one completely and sparing the second and third levels of others.
My husband swam across the flood waters in howling winds to secure a rope lifeline to our next-door neighbor’s three-story house. He hoped we could hold on to it and swim over there during the eye of the storm when the wind dies down and all was calm for a few minutes.
The eye never came.
Instead, trapped inside the eye wall, the winds increased, and the water rose, faster and faster.
When it was over, we surveyed the damage. Our landscaping and beautiful gardens, which I so proudly shared in my Instagram account, were decimated. Our RV and cars had been completely submerged and were a total loss.
Someone’s 28’ boat and trailer wedged itself in our front yard’s buttonwood garden and someone else’s blue kayak lay discarded on our front doorsteps, along with mounds of debris.
Our garage had been at least six feet under water. We lost our extra old refrigerator and freezer, our lawn tools and years of personal records, along with all our hurricane food supplies and countless other things.
The jacuzzi spa, installed on our patio, less than a year old, turned and slammed into the side of our house. The 25’ long lanai steps, weighing at least a thousand pounds, ended up around the corner of the house, on its side.
My family arrived the next morning, parked a half mile away and walked in because of all the downed trees blocking our street.
Hurricane Ian spilled over a foot of water inside our home. Above the baseboards - below light sockets, leaving every room covered in disgusting black filth.
My family wiped that horrible mud from the floors, creating a cleaner path around the inside of the house, only to be met with more watery mud seeping out of the furniture.
Our lawn man arrived with his wife and daughter and chain-sawed the dangerously broken and jutting splintered branches that prevented us from entering the backyard safely. His family joined in cleaning mud from our floors.
Debris jammed our lanai’s hurricane awnings closed, so we couldn’t manually open them to exit from the back of the house.
Every single thing on the floor — all rugs, shoes, power strips, and everything plugged into them was damaged.
One friend showed up with food, tools, and a strong back to help shovel mud out of the garage. Another friend came with more food and a Yeti cooler filled with ice, since we had lost all our hurricane provisions stored in the flooded garage.
On Saturday my family came back and cleaned the gross lanai, covered in that godawful stinky mud, but they had to pass stuff out through the breakfast-room window to the patio because the hurricane screens were still jammed. Those Kevlar screens stopped projectiles, but not the water.
You don’t stop water.
My family got on their hands and knees and washed every inch of the living room floor. The living room couches and chairs had nasty water stains on the edges, but at least we could sit on them.
On Sunday, we removed the furniture and carpets from the grandchildren’s bedroom and emptied the guest room, but at least the floors were clean.
Not sanitary, though.
Cat three water is filled with sewage, fertilizers, chemicals and disgusting mud. (not to be confused with a cat three hurricanes - they’re a different cat)
Our cleaning gals came on Monday and scrubbed the rest of the house, except for the computer room where sharp, broken tile lay. It was too dangerous to be in that room anyway because of the toxic fumes from the generator located outside on the lawn.
We were in survival mode.
No electricity, but the generator kept the refrigerator somewhat cold. We had water we could bathe in but not drink. There was a boil water notice. However, our Reverse Osmosis system provided purified drinking water.
After we showered in cold water for a few days, we quickly learned if we waited until four in the afternoon, the pipes would be warm enough to provide a few minutes of lukewarm water. We made it work.
Within days after the hurricane, chinook helicopters began flying over the north side of our house bringing search and rescue supplies to Sanibel island. They returned on the south side empty handed.
Back and forth.
The quick installation of portable cell towers made cell coverage possible. Thanks to Elon Musk, we had limited internet.
That allowed us to see the extensive damage to Sanibel Island. We didn’t look at Ft. Myers Beach. I could only take so much painful devastation at a time.
A week after the hurricane, we could secure a rental car 135 miles away. But we still didn’t have electricity, full internet, TV or phones.
Insurance adjusters flitted in and out of our home. Mitigators swarmed like flies, wanting to rip out walls and floors and charge us $50,000. We didn’t take them up on their offers and by waiting, we spent $4,000 for the same job.
A lovely thing happened amid the worst part of the hurricane. We saved a wild bunny rabbit just before the house flooded. He hopped right up to our outside deck, sopping wet, and peered in through the glass door, shivering. My husband scooped him up and passed him inside before he drowned. We kept him warm and fed and held him the whole time. The next morning he returned to the wild, but unfortunately there were a lot of dead little animals everywhere.
Our favorite squirrel made it through the storm. When we got the hurricane awnings up, we could feed her through a tangled mess of discarded and ruined patio furniture, broken flowerpots, and dead or dying plants.
I was numb, a protective reaction from too much emotional pain and depressed from the devastation that surrounded us every day and everywhere we went.
Some friends lost their entire homes while others, like us, sustained damage that required us to move out of our home in order for it to be repaired.
We were a community full of people suffering from PTSD. We still are. These are all normal feelings and it’ll take a while to process it and heal.
Some days, I sat and did nothing but read. Eventually, I would get up and do whatever looked like it needed doing. The choices were never ending, and there was no rush.
It would take an army to clean up the mess.
Our entire street and the surrounding area was a war-torn area. It looked like every home vomited their entire contents, walls, floors, and personal things onto the road. What was once a two-way street was now one way, congested with all the discarded remnants of each family’s life.
A ceramic statue of a white kitty cat sat alone and broke on top of an enormous pile of belongings, a beacon of what was once important to someone.
Alongside each pile of refuse was a growing mountain of damaged trees and foliage, some chain sawed and neatly placed, and some not so much.
When the electrical power trucks were one street over, there were so many downed poles between us we doubted we would get electricity for at least another couple of weeks. The next day, men from New Hampshire, Wyoming, Miami and a bunch of other places converged on our street with so many huge power trucks I couldn’t count them all. They finished in a day and a half.
It was heavenly to take a hot shower, shampoo my hair and sleep peacefully in air conditioning again.
And I felt guilty about it.
Those poor people suffering in Ukraine, the wildfires in California, the tornadoes in the Midwest and the people whose homes were destroyed by countless floods along with Hurricane Ian had it so much worse than us.
They’d lost everything.
For a moment in time, I put a toe in the water of their horrendous lives. They’ll never be the same.
Nor will I.
We aren’t equal, though.
I can put my arms around my loved ones and know we made it—although somewhat
emotionally damaged, we’re alive, and grateful for all we had and still have.
Twenty-eight days after Hurricane Ian, trucks and men filled our street and pulled down the damaged internet/telephone/cable lines, replacing them with fresh ones.
I felt like I’d been in the hospital, newly released to wobble around on weak legs as I timidly sat down in front of my computer to write again.
Our CBS block home survived. The washing machine, dryer and dishwasher didn’t. The refrigerator and stove are iffy. Some roof tiles are missing, and we’re finding some water damage on the ceiling. All the furniture sustained some water damage.
One day, big black trucks with giant claws began trolling our street, removing all the debris. It took them ten days. They left all the appliances sticking out like thumbs along the curbs and front yards for months. They removed those in the new year.
When our tree company cut up a four-story mango tree lodged against the side of our house, we found more damage. It demolished our storage shed on its way down. I disliked that damned storage shed, anyway.
I can’t describe what happened to my gardens without weeping. Even now, four months later (121 days), I still choke up when I talk about them.
My world shrunk. I concentrated on appreciating all the people who cared about us, who reached out, called, and even offered their homes across the state.
I learned some very important lessons as well.
In times of disaster, you show up. Traumatized people can’t tell you what they need. They don’t know. Many can’t give you a grocery list or even realize that an extra pair of hands and a fresh set of eyes will understand what to do.
Traumatized people will say, “I’m okay.”
But they’re not. They need you to come even if it’s only to say, “Holy shit, this sucks.”
It takes a special person to leave their comfortable life and walk into some else’s hell hole to see for themselves what they can do to help.
No matter what they say — go, anyway.
Some people did our laundry, and some let us shower in their homes. They drove us to important destinations, looked up stuff on the internet and tried to find hotels or apartments for us, only to learn everything was taken.
They brought food and ice and provided manpower. Some scrubbed shitty mud off our floors on their hands and knees.
All of them.
A month after Ian, with the internet newly hooked up, we finally saw Ft Myers Beach on YouTube for the first time. We had heard about it, so we knew what we were going to see.
It was still too much.
By mid-November, we moved into a condo as two feet of the walls in our entire home were removed and they chipped up the tile, creating a dusty mess I thought was going to kill me.
It was nice being with untraumatized fun people at the condo. They were wonderful to us. I think it helped with a bit of emotional healing.
In early December, the new walls and floors were installed, and they painted the house inside, top to bottom. Because we saved the kitchen, we could move back into our home on January 13th.
The master bathroom remains gutted.
Despite everything, life went on. Halloween, both our birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year came and went. I couldn’t stop them or even request they take a time out.
Doctor appointments happen, groceries bought, and we purchased new cars.
Through it all, I continued to work on my manuscript. It was my lifeline, keeping me sane.
I have an updated personal treasure trove of emotions I can pull from for my characters whenever I need to, earned the hard way.
I don’t know if it’s true that what doesn’t kill you strengthens you. All I know is I can’t wait to see all the good that’s going to come out of this disaster.
In fact, I’m counting on it.