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  • Writer's pictureggwakem

How Hurricane Ian Changed My Life

Updated: Jul 8



This first hand account of my family's ordeal with Hurricane Ian was published in

Storm Stories, Hurricane Ian, Stories of Survival, Heroism, and Humanity,

published by the Gulf Coast Writers Association



Scroll down for a three minute You Tube video my son, Peter Jr. and I created from my photographs and videos.

 

 

 

Redemption

The Action of Regaining Possession or Being Saved

by: Ginger Wakem

 

How many times have the weather forecasters been inaccurate, and the storm was weaker than expected? Floridians know hurricanes are unpredictable. They slow down, speed up, and swerve. You either leave or prepare. Those are your two choices.


If you leave, it better be early enough and you better have a place to stay. If you wait too long, especially in south Florida, people from all over the state will jump on I-75, the only major route north, resulting in gridlock traffic and no hotel rooms.

Also, you can’t travel out of this state on one tank of gas. Individuals in the past had to wait long hours at gas stations to fill their tanks, despite the looming storm.


By changing the southbound lanes of I-75 to go north, a previous governor moved people more quickly. When Ian suddenly picked up speed, increasing that demand, I asked myself why that wasn’t an option this time.


Just in case, though, we discussed heading to our east coast family while Ian was at a Cat three level. However, Ian was still far enough south, it could have followed us. It’s not unusual for a hurricane to crisscross the state.


Over the twenty years we’ve lived here, our home has never flooded, even though we are on the ten-mile canal, a small inland waterway that leads to the Gulf. The canal is approximately sixty feet wide at its highest tide.


Our concrete block home, with its new roof, thanks to Irma, was built to Miami-Dade hurricane standards. We face east on an acre of land, eleven feet above sea level to the base of the house, and then we’re a half story up from there. Our south side deck is approximately the same height as the second floor of our next-door neighbor’s three-story home.

We believed we were high enough and would be safe if there was flooding.


Thus, we prepared to stay for a Cat-three hurricane and encouraged our daughter and her family to join us rather than remain in their home two blocks from the Caloosahatchee River.

That major waterway is a mile wide at some points and stretches sixty-seven miles across the state. Even though their home is four feet above the ground, we thought they were in greater danger of flooding than our narrow Mullock Creek back-bay canal outlet.


As a fourth generation Floridian, I’ve been through the worst of them … Donna /Cat four, Andrew/Cat five, Charley/Cat four, Wilma/Cat five and the less powerful ones in between. We were on vacation when Irma hit.


I know how to prepare. My parents and grandparents taught me. I filled the bathtubs and every container with tap water and placed large bags of ice in the garage freezer along with canned goods. I replaced all the batteries in the plastic candles and flashlights, topped off both cars’ gas tanks, and safely stored the important documents.


Extra propane for the grill sat ready to cook the frozen food that would thaw after the electricity went out. All our windows had metal shutters screwed on and our motorized Kevlar hurricane screens sealed off the lanai. We couldn’t get in or out from the rear of the house.

 

My parents stressed that no matter how tightly you’ve boarded up your home, a way out is necessary. Our safety exit was through the hurricane proof glass door opening onto our south side deck. That door faces the side of our neighbor’s three-story house, their backyard leading down to the ten-mile canal on our right, and our street to our left.


Like many of our neighbors, we hunkered down and waited.

 

Wednesday, September 28. What We Didn’t Know  

The howling winds woke us early. We brewed coffee, turned on the TV, and saw we were facing the front edges of a mammoth storm. Then the electricity failed.

Ian gained strength to a Cat-four and water crept up the lawn of our south-side neighbor’s backyard. Then Mary and Carl, who live directly across the street in a cute 1940s two-bedroom cottage, clambered up our deck stairs and banged on our glass door. Their raincoats were soaking wet, and Carl cradled their ailing elderly dog in his arms, saying, “We left while we still could.”


By one o’clock the rainwater had accumulated in their front yard and covered their first step. Only three more steps before it flooded their house.


It was 2:06 p.m. when I took a photograph from our deck’s glass door of the ten-mile canal to our right, flowing into our street on the left and creating a huge lake. The water rose so fast it submerged Mary and Carl’s home. We worried we might be next.


When the water covered the first step leading to our deck, my daughter and I hastened to move our essential documents and all the things we would require after the hurricane to the kitchen’s ceiling alcove.


Her husband, using his cell phone, monitored the storm, giving us updates.


Mary, a seasoned grandmother herself, kept my grandchildren calm, entertaining them in the back bedroom, away from the flurry of activity.


The water rapidly climbed the deck stairs.


Deeply concerned, my husband Peter and the neighbor Carl concentrated on how to get six adults, two children, and three dogs to higher ground—the empty three-story home next door. Those neighbors had given us their key when they left at the last minute the day before.


Peter decided our only option was for him to swim over to their house and tie a long rope from the banister of our deck to their second story stairs. Then, when the “eye” arrived and the winds died down, we could evacuate everyone.


By 2:30 p.m., Peter was ready. My daughter turned to me crying, “Stop him, he’s seventy-four years old. I don’t want him to die. I can’t watch my father drown.”

In gale force winds and blinding rain, Carl monitored the rope while Peter slipped into the nasty water and swam over submerged hedges, now fifteen-feet-deep, intent on tying our lifeline to the neighbors’ stair railing. Their ground-level garage and workshop were already underwater.


We couldn’t take our eyes off him. Yet, we didn’t want to watch him struggling through that disgusting water filled with sewage, fertilizers, chemicals, and rotting sea vegetation. The wind blew dangerous objects in his path. White caps splashed his face, as the fast-moving current threatened to pull him under, but he held tight to that rope and completed his task.


He struggled up the remaining steps to their front door. Using their key tied to his belt, he tried to unlock it, but the key wouldn’t fit. Over and over he fumbled with the lock until, in frustration, he simply turned the door handle, and it swung open.

We had a place to go.


My heart pounded when he pulled himself back up our deck steps, bleeding from the thorny bougainvillea bushes he swam over. I pushed away all thoughts of what could’ve happened. It was no time to break down. We had to be ready to swim the children and pets to safety as soon as the “eye” arrived.


“Do you have an update on where the eye of the storm is?” we asked our son-in-law.


He checked his cell phone again. “It’s directly west and passing us right now.”


We were shocked. There would be no calm period.


3:15 p.m. Trapped

The hurricane had imprisoned us in its most dangerous section, the right front quadrant—or the “eye wall” where the strongest winds and most intense rains happen.


It was too late.


Ian increased to 156 miles per hour, the very edge of a Cat-five hurricane, missing that honorary distinction by one mile per hour. Its howling, violent winds broke trees in half and flung them through the air as if they weighed nothing. It was a frightening sound when our giant mango tree snapped off, destroying our tool shed and a section of roof gutters.


As the pounding rain intensified, the flood water climbed the deck’s last step.


Then a miracle happened. Just before water reached the floor of our deck, a small wild rabbit huddled outside the glass door, dripping wet and quivering. My husband scooped her up and passed her inside before she drowned. We warmed the rabbit in a towel. My grandchildren named her Brittany, fed her carrot slivers, and took turns holding her. She never tried to get away.


Within the hour, the water rose another two feet above the deck’s surface. Despite menacing winds, our metal hurricane awnings warded off every projectile, and the motorized Kevlar shutters protected the lanai, but nothing could hold back the Cat-3 flood water. You can’t stop water.


4:00 p.m. Invaded

We used all our bath and beach towels to block the doors. Regardless of our efforts, a foot of surge water rose to just below the electrical outlets, ruining everything it touched—all the appliances, furniture, rugs, shoes, luggage, power strips, and the cords plugged into them. The skirts on the living room sofa and chairs were covered in mud. The TV room’s leather sofa, loveseat, and recliner soaked it up, destroying the motors.


Until bedtime, we sloshed around in the yuck.


Before we crawled into bed that night, we washed our feet in dishpans filled with the tap water I’d saved.

 

Thursday, September 29. Fighting Our Way Through 

The water had receded by the time we woke and left behind a filthy, black, muddy mess on our white tile floors.

After Mary and Carl returned home to discover the full extent of their damage, we released our little bunny friend, Brittany, to a world that in no way reassembled the one she’d escaped. Her dead buddies would soon decompose, joining the foul odors emanating from the rotting seaweed and filthy sludge.




The front entrance, piled high with wet, slimy rubbish, didn’t stop Brittany. She just hopped away, avoiding a ten-foot blue kayak wedged into the corner of our front porch.

In the middle of our front lawn, our three-story Ficus tree stretched out on its side, roots in the air, exposing a twenty-five-foot-wide crater. The palms were windblown but still standing strong. We lost two.





A twenty-eight-foot open fisherman boat still secured to its trailer wedged itself in our buttonwood garden near the street. Our cars and our daughter’s cars had submerged and banged into each other.



A seaweed line of demarcation on the garage walls proved our garage was six feet under water at the height of the storm. Its contents, covered in mud, looked as if a giant washing machine had agitated them. Our old refrigerator and a freezer lay topsy-turvy against each other, its food caught up among the swirled debris. All the lawn tools we owned were destroyed.


Hundreds of belongings needed to be photographed and listed for insurance. We faced a daunting task.


HERE'S THE YOU TUBE VIDEO:



The Calvary Arrived

At eleven, I had finished scraping the muck away from the front door when my two sisters and a brother-in-law arrived. Fallen trees blocking our dead-end street forced them to park a half mile away. As chainsaws echoed up and down the streets, they helped drag several cut-up trees out of the way.


They drove my concerned daughter and her husband to check on their home, which was miraculously unharmed. Only broken tree limbs. Flood water didn’t enter their home.

Thankfully, Home Depot was open. My brother-in-law bought buckets, mops, and big brooms, which we needed. Later they took my house plants home, promising to care for them.


Amid all the coming and going, our lawn care man arrived with his family, unannounced. His wife and grown daughter jumped right in and helped wipe the mud off the floors on their hands and knees. He chain-sawed the broken, splintered branches of damaged trees that had prevented us from entering the backyard.


Our hearts raced when he finally exposed the full extent of the damage to our landscaping. Most of the giant Seagrape trees which we kept pruned to provide a shady canopy over our patio had snapped in half. Their long reaching branches lay tangled and trapped in seagrass that rose three feet high and extended three hundred feet to the north of our property. Silent and stunned, I wondered where the seagrass came from and how it ended up there. It was nowhere else on our property.


Entangled in the seagrass, along with bottles, cans, and plain old garbage, was a twenty-foot dock piling, weighing at least a hundred-fifty pounds. The canvas roof from someone’s dock encircled our pilings and stretched into our mangroves. It had to be cut out.


The jacuzzi spa, installed less than a year ago, spun around and slammed into our house, breaking its side panels and wiping out its electrical system. Its cover hung in a broken tree.


The twenty-five-foot-long lanai steps, weighing hundreds of pounds, became wedged under the backend of our RV, which had also been submerged.


And my beautiful gardens, which I shared on Instagram, were decimated. Photographs and videos are worth a thousand words. Go see them because, honestly, describing them chokes me up. I can’t talk about it without weeping.




 

Friday, September 30. Food

A family friend arrived with roasted chicken and fresh salads. He supplied the manpower to drag dead appliances to the street and a tool to scrape the mud off the garage floor.

Another close friend brought a Yeti cooler filled with more food, packed on ice, and snacks — the kind I usually deny myself. I didn’t give it a second thought. Some things were no longer important. I dove into that bag of delicious, crunchy, vinegar and sea salt potato chips.

 

Saturday, October 1. The Stench

My family returned to help us clean the lanai. Grossly covered in that godawful mud, it stunk like rotting garbage. The lanai’s Kevlar hurricane screen was so jammed up with rocks, twigs, and sand, the manual opener wouldn’t work. We passed whatever we could pick up, fire brigade style, through the sliding door and out the breakfast-room window to the backyard patio. Afterward, we snaked a hose through the same window to wash the patio’s muddy floor.


Our south-side neighbors, exhausted from excavating their first-floor garage and workshop, helped us remove the furniture and carpets from the grandchildren’s guest bedroom. We piled it on the street next to Mary and Carl’s damaged belongings.


Then we emptied the adult guest room and mopped its floors. But they weren’t sanitary. Cat-3 water had seeped through the tile grout, contaminating the floors in every room. They would have to be removed.


Survival Mode

Tap dancing in cold showers reduced civilized living to a primitive level. It was lovely to discover the pipes warmed up by late afternoon, delivering lukewarm water. It wasn’t perfect, but we made it work. I washed my hair in the kitchen sink like I did as a child growing up in a household with one bathroom.


Only looking back did we realize we were in survival mode.


Our appetites disappeared. That slowed down our digestion systems, so there was nothing to pass. When one is in a fight-or-flight situation, about to be eaten by a dinosaur, the reptilian center of the brain knows there’s no time to stop, eat or defecate, so it shuts down those bodily processes.


An invisible thread connected my husband and me. We couldn’t fall asleep without wrapping tightly together and would wake in the night, reaching out to touch each other. It was reassuring, intuitive, and therapeutic on a primordial level.


My husband was my hero and stayed steady through it all. Energized by the challenges we faced, Peter led the cleanup and planned for the renovation of not just our home, but our business as well. It sustained water and wind damage too.

 

Monday, October 3, 2022. The Helicopters  

The thump, thump, thump sound of Chinook helicopters flying low over our house drew me outside with my early morning cup of coffee. They carried supplies that bulged from huge, webbed nets or large pieces of equipment secured by powerful chains hanging beneath them. Bound for Sanibel Island to rescue the living and search for the dead, it was heartbreaking to hear them make that trip over and over.


Back and forth. All day.


Thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system, the quick installation of portable cell towers granted limited internet. We finally saw the extensive damage to Sanibel and what those helicopters were facing. For the first time, I broke down.


Looking at videos of Fort Myers Beach was not an option.

 

Monday, October 3. The Daily Grind

Everything still had to be documented before discarding.

It was too depressing to think about.


Scarlett O’Hara was right—I’d deal with it tomorrow. I lived one day at a time.

Sometimes I curled up in my mud-spattered chair, reading. Mostly mysteries. Anything to escape.


Eventually, I got up and did whatever needed doing. There was no rush. The choices were never ending. My entire world shrank to the daily grind of listing, then photographing our damaged possessions, and talking to friends who called to make sure we were okay.


A Call To Arms

During this ordeal, I learned important lessons. Special people leave the comfort of their home and walk into someone else’s hell to lend a hand or give a kind word. A hug helps and so does hearing the simple validation, “Holy crap, this sucks.”


Be the person who does laundry, offers showers, supplies a ride to the doctor or goes to the grocery store, drives to pick up a rental car, looks up information on the internet, brings ice, food, and drinks and, on hands and knees, scrubs shitty mud off floors.


Our family and friends did.


Our lawn care man’s wife and daughter, who I’d never met before, did.


Saints. All of them.

 

Thursday, October 6 . The Small Things

Our generator provided only minimum electricity. It couldn’t give us TV, Wi-Fi or a landline, privileges I had taken for granted. Who was I to complain? Our ancestors lacked those things a few generations ago. It didn’t kill them. It certainly wouldn’t kill me.


Unbelievably, the mail came. The trucks dodged the growing piles of refuse as they delivered to any mailbox left standing. We nailed our broken, mud-stained box back to its dock piling.


A few squirrels scurried through the patio’s tangled mess of broken flowerpots and dead plants, switching their tails the moment they spotted us. We fed them peanuts, a baby-step toward our previous normal life.

 

Friday, October 7. Nothing is Normal

Within nine days, insurance adjusters flitted in and out of our home, making notes and taking photographs. Mitigators swarmed like flies. Those guys wanted to rip out the walls and floors for a mere fifty-thousand dollars. No, thank you.


Our neighborhood was war torn. Destruction surrounded us.


Every house had vomited its contents: walls, floors, cabinets, toilets, sinks, clothes, shoes, beds, linens, toys, appliances, framed art, rugs, and furniture onto the road. Our two-way street became a single lane, congested with damaged and discarded remnants of each family’s life.


A broken ceramic white cat sat alone on top of an enormous pile of household items, a beacon of what was once important to someone. I hoped it wasn’t a child’s possession.


Then the trash pickers came. They combed through heap after heap, loading ruined storm-soaked belongings into trailers, vans, trucks, and cars, sometimes blocking the entire road.


Mountains of damaged trees and foliage rested alongside each pile of refuse. Seeing that daily is a hopeless, depressing feeling that’s hard to fathom.

 

October 9. Hopefulness, Gratitude, and Guilt

Eleven days after the storm, electrical power trucks arrived one street over. It felt like eleven hundred days. Dozens of downed power poles, some snapped in half and others with their electrical parts thrown onto the street, separated us. Surely it would take weeks before they restored our electricity.


But the next day, so many out-of-state repair trucks were on our street, I couldn’t count them all.

Trained people, both men, and women, from New Hampshire, Wyoming, Miami, and lots of other places, removed the broken poles and installed new ones. They lifted large buckets to the top of the new poles, where they connected the mysterious things that make electricity possible.




And I felt guilty for having those privileges restored.


The people of Ukraine lost their lives and homes as invaders stole parts of their country. Many families were homeless because of the fires in California. The tornadoes and floods in the Midwest had done the same to countless others.


And now Ian decimated our community, killing people, wiping away homes and businesses, costing thousands of people everything they owned. Some were our friends.


For that millisecond when the storm raged, and the flood surge threatened our lives, I put a toe in the water of their horrific ones.


They’ll never be the same. Nor will I.


We aren’t equal, though. I can embrace my loved ones and know we survived — although somewhat emotionally wounded, we’re alive, and thankful for all we had and still possess.

 

Wednesday, October 19. Hope Arrived

Three weeks later, trucks filled our street once more. The workers pulled down and replaced the damaged internet/telephone/cable lines with new ones.


I felt like I’d been in the hospital, newly released to wobble around on weak legs as I timidly perched in front of my computer, read my email, and worked on my manuscript again. Drawn back into the life of my main character, a high-ranking Mafioso, I stirred up scenes I wouldn’t have imagined before Ian. Maybe I’d send him straight into a Cat-five hurricane or have him blend in with rescue workers in big trucks, but decided, nah, another time.


Everyone was grateful when huge black hauling trucks, some towing an additional trailer with giant motorized claws, arrived and removed debris that had grown to fifteen feet. They left all the appliances looking like big fat thumbs poking upward.


Over a three-week period, tow trucks took our cars away, adding them to the other mind-boggling 358,000 ruined vehicles.

 

Tuesday, November 15. Emotional Seesaw

Professional movers arrived promptly at nine and spent hours hauling all our possessions into two pods. We placed our framed art, TV, and electronics into an air-conditioned storage unit — the last one they had. It was a Herculean effort requiring the help of many people and, at the end of the day, an extra glass or two of wine. Maybe three.


We moved into a furnished condo in downtown Ft Myers. Removing ourselves from a ravaged neighborhood proved to be a huge stress reliever. For the first time in forty-nine days, we had a washer and dryer. The wonderful condo residents invited us to their cocktail parties, where we made new friends and traded Ian stories.


Peter and I enjoyed new restaurants and learned to navigate the tricky downtown parking. By then, most businesses were open, with only a few remaining boarded up.

Meanwhile, our renovation team started work. They chipped up our ceramic tiles and removed the lower two feet of all the walls. Wretched drywall and tile dust coated my home. Those folks who’ve experienced this miserable scourge will understand the distress it causes.


However, it sure beats a nasty Cat-3 flood or Cat-4 hurricane.


We Couldn’t Stop Time

Halloween, Thanksgiving, and our birthdays rolled by with Christmas looming. We made it through each one by being gentle with ourselves. Our gifts were just being alive and safe with our loving family.


A Bob Marley tune played over and over in my head: Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.

 

Thursday, December 8, 2022. Magic

Sixty-one days. New walls and floors were installed, and a team of men and women painted the house from top to bottom with light and airy colors. As the dreadful images of my home B. I. (before Ian) receded, hope took its place. Inspired, I knew it would continue to be better as we restored it.


We owe our deepest gratitude to the tremendously skilled Hispanic artisan community whose caring attitude helped make it possible.

 

Saturday, December 31. Fireworks

Three months and four days after Ian, we were ready to put 2022 behind us. For New Year’s Eve, we joined our daughter and her family in downtown Fort Myers for their Main Street festivities. Six bands on different streets and three deejays on several stages. Excited by it, the little ones begged to stay up for the fireworks and twelve o’clock ball drop. We felt the energy and happiness of hundreds of people, like us, glad to see the year gone.


By midnight, we were on the condo’s rooftop with our new friends, watching a panorama of incredible fireworks lighting up the sky, welcoming in a promising new year.

 

January 2023. Recovery

The house was coming along. Eight men and a bobcat had repositioned the lanai steps into place. Spa repairmen had ordered and replaced the damaged parts. The owners of the boat and trailer wedged in our front garden had taken it away, but the blue kayak, propped up against the front of our house, remains unclaimed.


Even though the master bathroom was still gutted, we were ready to leave the condo.

 

Friday, January 13, 2023. Our Lucky Day

We moved into our guest bedroom three and a half months after Ian. Yes, it was Friday the 13th, but I will never again think of it as an unlucky day. It was a wonderful day.

We were home with lots of work ahead of us.


First, we emptied the air-conditioned warehouse. Then the pod company reclaimed their pods. Later we were heartsick, watching our RV hauled away. The largest tow truck we’d ever seen accomplished that feat.


Plastic bins filled the garage, their contents scrutinized before returning to the house.


Oh, what a happy day when the new appliances arrived.


The repaired sprinkler system greened up the grass and a pink hibiscus bush bloomed. The crotons, spider lilies, and dwarf screw pines perked up. Milkweed popped up all over the yard, enticing the butterflies to return.


When I spotted Brittany hopping around under the bird feeders, I stopped and said hello. She just looked at me and hopped away.


Our water filtration business still operates. It has only a concrete floor, but we’ve replaced and painted the walls and continue to do business out of five pods lined up in our parking lot. Ian didn’t stop us. Every employee dedicated themselves to repairing the pipes of customers who were out of water, laboring long hours without complaint.


Through it all, I worked on my novel and polished my website.


 

Monday, March 28, 2023. PTSD

Our community continues to battle post-traumatic stress six months after Ian.


We greet each other with, “How’d you do during Ian?”

Their stories can be heartbreaking and triggering. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t asked.


Six of our neighbors, including Mary and Carl, live in trailers or RVs parked next to their uninhabitable homes while they rebuild.


Four houses were demolished at the end of our street.


For Sale signs go up daily.


We finally took that drive to Fort Myers Beach. The damage was incredible.


Redemption

In researching my novel, I learned the significance of the mafia’s Vow of Omertà. One aspect of their philosophy that resonates with me is their pledge to “…show courage and heart. Do not whine or complain. Show bravery when faced with adversity.”


I try, but sometimes it’s really hard.


In Alexandre Dumas’s novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, he said, ‘Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.’


Amen.


Then there is good old intellectual Nietzsche’s: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”


I hope so.


In fact, as I get further away from the trauma of Ian, I can truly say I’m counting on it.


If Brittany is alive, I’d like to believe she does, too.


 
















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