‘It’s total destruction’: After warm welcome in South Florida, evacuees return to devastation in Lee County

The reception 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 return to upon leaving.

When the WLRN visited last week, the hotel was primarily reserved for evacuees fleeing Hurricane Ian.

Candy Anderson is 74 years old. She is chairman of the board of directors of Village of the old bridge, a waterfront mobile home community in North Fort Myers in Lee County. The 55+ co-op has a private marina and sits on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River

“I can’t say enough about the people of Palm Beach County. They went out of their way to accommodate everyone and make us feel comfortable,” Anderson said.

“We were at a McDonald’s and there were several power teams there. And they all made a point of stopping by our table and telling us that they have our backs. 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 Hurricane Ian’s epicenter, the southwestern region of the state, headed southeast to find a shelter.

Christine Whitney, the hotel’s assistant general manager, said they were off season but were 100% full on some weekdays. 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 recounted how she and her friends left 24 hours before Ian made landfall. His home was built in 1984 and had escaped damage from previous hurricanes.

“We went through Irma, which was pretty bad, but not as bad as this one. But it will be a difficult decision on how we want to proceed. We are retired. We are on a limited income. But we are a tough community,” she said.

A red corvette sits on a seawall at Old Bridge Village in North Fort Myers, Lee County, after storm surge from Hurricane Ian inundated the mobile home community.

Initially, his group – which includes his partner and a few friends – weren’t going to evacuate, as forecasts said Hurricane Ian was targeting the Tampa Bay area. She said she knows more than a dozen people who stayed because it didn’t look like it was going to affect Lee County directly.

“We sat in our living room and [local news] say 8 to 10, 8 to 12 foot surge,” Anderson said. “And we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s time to go’.”

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 forecast said the projected track demonstrated the “probable path of the center of the storm” and that “hazardous conditions may appear outside the cone.”

More than 55 deaths in Lee County were related to Hurricane Ian, according to the county sheriff’s office as of early this week. And more than 840 people have been rescued during the ongoing search and rescue efforts, which are still ongoing, with county, state and federal assistance.

The county medical examiner’s office told WLRN it submits information to the Florida Law Enforcement Division, which then releases the numbers to the public.

Local officials are face questions why mandatory evacuations were ordered only 24 hours before Ian hits the ground. Neighboring counties issued evacuations before Tuesday.

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 the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa Bay when the storm’s path changed direction. He defended Lee County’s decision, “sticking to the plan that was in place.”

“The second we could and should issue that order, I’m confident we did – again, we wouldn’t change a thing,” Marceno said. “I also understand that there are people who don’t want to leave their homes. We cannot force them to leave their homes.

Ian, a natural disaster of historic proportions, destroyed neighborhoods and piers on the west coast. Its storm surge severed Sanibel Island’s causeway, cutting off access to the mainland. Extensive storm surge damage extended from Marco Island to Naples, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Matlacha and Pine Island.

‘We live in a tent in the carport’

Before heading home, Anderson showed WLRN a social media post from her underwater community. She stopped for a moment, held back tears and said she had a “stomach ache”.

Old Bridge Village – the mobile home community where Candy Anderson lives – has more than 700 homes. Kimberly Mahoney, a realtor who works with community residents, took photos showing loose roofs and boats crushing some of the mobile homes.

Mahoney’s sister, Joanne Golden, recently moved to the Boston, Massachusetts subdivision two weeks ago.

“My sister lost everything, including her car here,” Mahoney said. “But it’s the same story for everyone here. We just handle the food that was given and the tarp, and do our best. The realtor said most residents of the community do not have flood insurance.

    Joanne Golden is from Boston, Massachusetts.  She and her partner Bob Sweeney moved into their home in Old Bridge Village two weeks ago.  Hurricane Ian severely damaged the house.
Joanne Golden is from Boston, Massachusetts. She and her partner Bob Sweeney moved into their home in Old Bridge Village two weeks ago. Hurricane Ian severely damaged the house.

Mahoney said his regular brick home in Bonita Springs, a 45-minute drive south, fared much better than the mobile homes in Old Bridge Village.

The town of Bonita Springs recently urged its residents “to keep an eye on water levels” because the natural occurrence of “sheet flow” after a hurricane causes the city’s Imperial River to rise.

Anderson returned to Old Bridge Village to find her living room underwater – important documents and belongings missing.

“It’s total destruction. We have a boat on the road. We have a Corvette sitting on a dike,” she said. “My house had six inches of water. I can’t get my house back. So we live in a tent in the carport.

As residents returned to see what was left of their homes, they gathered at their neighborhood clubhouse, cleaned up “nearly four feet of mud” and even held a game of cornhole to amuse themselves. Anderson said many people remain 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. It’s my house. I have to go out and collect the money and live in an RV,” Anderson said.

“We know this will not happen overnight. Two people left and they said, “We are leaving. They got to Tampa and they couldn’t make it. They came back. They said, ‘We can’t leave. It’s our home.'”

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