The Reality on the Ground in Florida After Hurricane Ian—and How to Help

A week after one of Florida’s worst hurricanes, coastal communities remain entirely cut off. A writer based in Florida fills us in on how locals are coping and what recovery efforts look like.

Geneva, Florida, Hurricane Ian

Residents of Geneva, Florida, navigate a flooded street on October 4, after historic flooding due to Hurricane Ian.

Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

Last Monday, when Tampa was squarely in Hurricane Ian’s crosshairs according to all reputable models, and as I moved the entire bottom floor of my Tampa townhouse upstairs during a mandatory evacuation and sandbagged the doors, it all felt surreal. “Like being stalked by a turtle,” as a viral meme going around Florida at the time put it so well—you can make fun of Florida, but Florida will always beat you to it.

Most of my neighbors left to points spread across the state and even as far away as Virginia, but several stayed put either because they didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to stay in a shelter, or had nowhere or no means to go.

By Tuesday, safely evacuated to a friend’s house in Gainesville in the middle of the state (about 130 miles north of Tampa) with my two young kids, I saw the storm’s track had shifted east and farther south, putting Florida’s Fort Myers area firmly in its bull’s-eye. But relief that a storm is missing a direct hit on your home as it veers toward the destruction of someone else’s is hardly a good feeling.

By Wednesday, all of us watching together at my friend’s house gasped aloud at the Weather Channel’s real-time reporting of the storm’s surge in Fort Myers Beach. My six-year-old son asked if it was a tsunami. Later that day, a friend who lives in Fort Myers, a tourist town known for its beautiful stretches of sandy coastline, sent photos of her pool deck furniture being swamped by the Caloosahatchee River. Not long after, her dock was swept away entirely in what looked like Class V rapids. Her kids are now out of school for the foreseeable future, their town in shambles around them.

When daylight broke on Thursday, the storm on its way through central Florida as it headed back out into the Atlantic and north, onward to a second U.S. landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane, it became clear that the damage in Florida was extensive and devastating.

In the hours and days that followed, we saw the footage from Fort Myers Beach that looked like a bomb scene, shell-shocked locals who could have as easily been us surveying the damage, and learned that the paradise vacation islands of Sanibel and Captiva had been effectively cut off with the causeway that connects them to the mainland having washed away and collapsed in the storm surge.

Sanibel Island causeway collapse Hurricane Ian

Damage from Hurricane Ian on the causeway leading to Sanibel Island from Fort Myers, Florida

Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP

It’s been a week since Hurricane Ian unleashed its devastating Category 4 fury and 150-mile-per-hour winds on southwest Florida on September 28 (after decimating parts of western Cuba’s Pinar del Río region enroute).

In addition to the damage in southwest Florida, catastrophic flooding ensued in locations in central and eastern Florida during record rainfall in what may amount to Florida’s most expensive storm ever.

According to research on uninsured losses, Ian’s financial toll is estimated to be as high as $47 billion. And the storm’s human toll is still being tallied—storm-related deaths had reached 109 as of press time (105 of which were in Florida) and continue to mount. Then there are the catastrophic damages in lives upended that are far more difficult to quantify as people everywhere from Sanibel Island and Fort Myers to central Florida and east coast beach towns in Volusia and Flagler counties, impacted by severe flooding, grapple with the next, daunting steps in rebuilding their lives.

Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, Hurricane Ian

Beachgoers pass a collapsed pool deck on October 3 in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida—hotel and condo seawalls and decks along the coastline were gutted by Hurricane Ian last week.

Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

I am from Florida, and the threat of hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season that runs from June 1 through November 30 is as much a part of life here as the ample sunshine. More often than not, we get lucky. But Ian was the one we’d been fearing.

In Fort Myers Beach, one of places hardest hit by Ian’s wrath, authorities estimate over 80 percent of the structures will have to be rebuilt, with entire communities having effectively been swept away by the storm surge.

To the north, Pine Island’s roads connecting it to the mainland have also been washed away, leaving the island accessible by boat only (if you can find one that has survived the storm). A temporary bridge to connect Pine Island residents to the mainland is scheduled to be in place by the end of this week, just a drop in the bucket in the rebuilding necessary in this part of Florida in the coming months and years.

And away from the scenic beaches, in poorer neighborhoods that hardly register on Florida’s tourist radar—including Harlem Heights, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood between Fort Myers Beach and Cape Coral where the median income was under $26,000 in 2020—conditions are dire after Ian’s punishing floods and winds, too. Helpers there continue to arrive to restock the area’s flooded food pantry and distribute water and food.

Pine Island residents, Florida, Hurricane Ian

Residents pick up free perishable food items at a Publix in Pine Island, Florida, on October 4.

Photo by Scott Clause/The News-Press via AP

More than 2.5 million people in Florida were without power at the height of the storm-related outages. And some 42,000 linemen—the workers responsible for repairing, maintaining, and installing high-powered electrical lines in both normal and troubled times—from utility companies from across Florida and around the country are working tirelessly to restore it to communities here, a process that could take weeks or months. A friend in Naples tells me exhausted linemen with nowhere to sleep or shower are staying in their trucks, and locals are gathering wet wipes and deodorant for them.

On Sunday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s office reported that more than 1,600 rescues had been made in Florida so far, with over 1,000 team members dedicated to ongoing search and rescue.

In addition to the numbers reported in the news, there are the personal ones circulating on social media in Florida circles—of a mother, Callie Brown, and her partner who dumped Christmas decorations from plastic storage bins as water rose to their attic and loaded their three-month-old son and cat inside to swim for their lives down what was once their street, of residents warning people against swimming in once pristine Gulf of Mexico waters where bodies have been seen floating. It’s a tragedy that will continue to unfold in the coming days and weeks, even as hurricane season in these parts still has nearly two full months left to go.

Hurricane Ian, North Port, Florida

Andre McCourt throws away water-logged furniture from his home in North Port, Florida.

Photo by Chris O’Meara/AP

How to help the people of Florida

If you live in Florida or have connections to the state, chances are your social media feeds are full of ways to help hurricane victims right now—from neighbors bringing supplies down to southwestern Florida, to Facebook parent groups organizing fundraisers and diaper drives and neighborhood lemonade stands run by kids and local businesses donating their profits. The Florida Disaster Fund (a private fund run by the state) reportedly raised $21 million in relief efforts in its first 48 hours of activation.

For those watching the devastation from afar and wondering how to help, the notable organizations working to assist in the recovery efforts include major aid groups, such as the Red Cross and United Way Worldwide. But take note of these grassroots efforts on the ground right now in Florida, too, to direct your money and time to best help the people and places that need it the most. For those interested in volunteering, it would be wise to align with an official group of organized volunteers (like All Hands and Hearts mentioned below) and be sure to inquire about housing, which could be in short supply, in advance.

Ian Response Fund

A network of on-the-ground, grassroots organizations (including Dream Defenders, Florida Rising, and Florida Immigrant Coalition) that teamed up in the wake of Hurricane Irma to raise nearly $2 million in aid is behind the Ian Response Fund. Its mission is to provide emergency aid, working closely with organizations in the impacted communities.

Metropolitan Ministries

The commercial kitchen of the Tampa-based Metropolitan Ministries works with underserved and impoverished communities is being used by chef José Andrés and the team from World Central Kitchen as a prep ground and distribution hub for thousands of meals bound for people in Florida’s affected areas. You can donate money or your time to help with tasks in Tampa through Metropolitan Ministries or directly through World Central Kitchen, which opened another kitchen in Fort Myers this week.

Collaboratory

Based in Fort Myers, the Southwest Florida community foundation Collaboratory works with the United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades counties to collect and distribute funds to areas experiencing the most immediate needs, putting 100 percent of its funds toward southwest Florida nonprofit organizations directly helping the people affected by Hurricane Ian.

Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida

If you’re in the Fort Myers area and able to help, you can volunteer on the ground or donate to the largest hunger-relief network in southwest Florida—the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. It is currently distributing ready-to-eat meals, bottled water, fresh produce, and shelf-stable food to impacted people at locations in Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples, and elsewhere in the affected area.

Captains for Clean Water

Another Fort Myers–based grassroots group (this one was started by Florida fishing guides in 2016), Captains for Clean Water sets up drop-off sites across Florida, in cities like St. Pete, Jupiter, Melbourne, and Islamorada, for collecting relief essentials (from generators and chainsaws to batteries and pet food), delivering them to those in need. You can also donate directly to Captains for Clean Water’s Hurricane Ian Relief Fund, where all the money goes to supplies and support.

All Hands and Hearts

This group was on the ground in Haiti, Nepal, and Louisiana following natural disasters in those destinations as well as others, and All Hands and Hearts is assembling a volunteer Hurricane Ian Relief Team in Florida right now for arrivals after October 7 and through January 7, 2023, for on the ground support with cleanup, rebuilding, and other community needs. If you can’t volunteer, you can donate to the cause.

Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, The Washington Post, among many other outlets.
More from AFAR