By JAY REEVES – Associated Press
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Just days after Hurricane Ian hit, a crowd of locals gathered under a huge banyan tree at a motel’s outdoor tiki bar for drink specials and live music . Less than 10 miles away, crews were finishing the search for bodies on a coastal barrier island. Even closer, entire families were trying to make themselves comfortable for the night in a mass shelter housing more than 500 storm victims.
On a coast where a few miles meant the difference between life and death, relief and ruin, the contrasting scenes of reality less than two weeks after the hurricane’s impact are shocking, and they show just how much a disaster can mean so many different things to different people.
Arlan Fuller saw the disparity while working in the hurricane zone serving marginalized communities with Project Hope, a nonprofit that provides medical relief services. A few factors seem to explain the big differences from place to place, he said: People and places closest to the coast tend to have the worst, as do people with lower incomes.
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“There’s an interesting combination of location, the strength of the structure people lived in, and the means,” Fuller said.
On Pine Island, where the state quickly erected a temporary bridge to replace the one swept away by the storm, volunteers are distributing water, ice, food and supplies. The island’s Publix grocery store reopened with a generator faster than it seemed possible, which delighted island resident Charlotte Smith, who did not evacuate.
“My house is OK. The lower level flooded a bit. But I’m dry. They turned the water back on. Things are really good,” Smith said.
Life is very different for Shanika Caldwell, 40, who took her nine children to a mass shelter inside Hertz Arena, a minor league hockey coliseum, after another shelter in the city closed. a public secondary school so that classes can prepare to resume. The family lived in a motel before the storm but had to flee after the roof blew off, she said.
“If they say they’re going to start school next week, how am I going to get my kids from school to and from here?” she said on Saturday. Nearby, a huge silver statue of an ice hockey player towered over the arena parking lot.
Ian, a strong Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (249 km/h), was responsible for more than 100 deaths, the vast majority of them in southwest Florida. It was the third deadliest storm to hit the continental United States this century behind Hurricane Katrina, which claimed an estimated 1,400 lives, and Hurricane Sandy, which claimed 233 total lives despite its weakening into a tropical storm just before it made landfall.
For some, the recovery was quite quick. Hair salons, car washes, chain restaurants, a shooting range and vape shops — many vape shops — have already reopened on US 41, known in South Florida as from Tamiami Trail. Many traffic lights are working, but residents of low-rise homes and trailer parks just off the highway continue to shovel mud left behind by floodwaters.
In Punta Gorda, near where boutiques and investment firms do business along palm-lined Tony Street, Judy Jones, 74, is trying to support more than 40 shelter residents for the homeless that it has operated for more than five decades, Mission Pain de Vie Inc.
“I deal with people who fall through the crack in the system,” she said. “You have people who were on their feet but because of the hurricane they are on their knees.”
Cheryl Wiese isn’t homeless: For 16 years she spent the fall and winter months in her modest mobile home on Oyster Bay Lane in Fort Myers Beach before returning to a spot on the lake Erie Ohio for the summer. But what she found after making the 24-hour drive south following Ian nearly ruined her.
“I don’t even want to live here anymore. There is no beach in Fort Myers. All my neighbors are gone. All my friends are gone,” she said.
The worst, she said, could have been walking past the devastation of the public library to begin the process of applying for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A worker told her to be ready for a phone call and a visit from a FEMA representative, and not to miss either, Wiese said.
“If I miss the phone call? Bad luck,” she said. “If I miss him? Bad luck.”
Danilo Mendoza, a Miami-area construction worker whose trailer and tools were taken away by Ian, has seen the places where people continue to live, where recovery is already underway, but he is doing his best to to stay positive.
He considers himself lucky because he has a safe place to stay at the hockey arena, which is located across from high-end apartments where people walk around in the mornings in sports gear, and where food is plentiful.
“I see the big picture,” he said. “They give you blankets, for God’s sake, new ones. They give you everything you need to survive.
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