I am supposed to be in Asia this week for a work trip, but I’m not. Life and Mother Nature had other plans. Our life was quickly changed with the arrival of Hurricane Ian and the significant damage left in its wake, including our new neighborhood of Rotonda West, Florida. The last two and a half weeks have been overwhelming in many ways and many of you have reached out to ask how we are, so I thought a blog post might be appropriate.
Our family is safe which is the single most important thing in this whole ordeal. I didn’t have confidence in that in the early days which was frightening. The forecasts ahead of the storm were shifting up and down the coast, eventually settling on the hurricane making landfall with a path to directly hit our house. This was confirmed about a day before the storm and I quickly made the decision to pack up the kids and dog and evacuate to Miami. Jake stayed back, wanting to be home in case something needed immediate attention. At the time, I was not concerned about Jake but I had no idea what was coming. The kids and I made it over to Miami fairly easily, dodging a few tornado warnings along the way. The hotel was comfortable and accommodating to our immediate needs. We checked in, stayed one night and then we waited to see what was going to unfold the next day.
Jake was all alone in the house. I want to share that every other neighbor we knew around us also stayed based on past experiences and never having been through such a storm in at least 50 years. The heavy winds (70+ mph) started about 11:00 am and we were getting regular updates from Jake and seeing neighbors post videos on Facebook. Power was lost at our house around 2:00 pm, about the time the eye made landfall just Southwest of us. The winds progressed and eventually gusted up to 150 mph. Because of the direction of the movement of the storm, our house was in the eye wall (the worst part) for about 4 to 5 hours and we never got the calm of the eye which passed just south of us. The heavy winds (70 to 150+ mph) and rain persisted for about 12 hours in total and I heard that locally we received up to 17 inches of rain.
Jake spent most of the time in one of two interior walk in closets, depending on the wind direction. He explained he could hear banging all around him and the constant sound of the howling wind. When he would come out of the closet for a short period he noticed that water was dripping from many light fixtures in the house, water was blowing through the window casings and exterior doors. He used everything he could find in the house to catch water – buckets, trash cans, meat luggers – to try to stop the damage. Every towel in the house was used to try to dry up the water coming in through the windows and doors. There wasn’t much more to be done other than wait. I had wished he could have gone to a neighbor’s house just to not be alone but that was impossible with the ditches between houses completely flooded and the wind over 100 mph. We lost all touch with Jake about 7:00 pm. There was no power, no water, no internet and no cell service. I had no idea if he was ok for about 13 hours and I feared the worst. Knowing that water was coming in I was very concerned that the roof or ceilings may have caved in. There was also concern being discussed by the weathermen we were watching in Miami over storm surge.
The next morning Jake was able to connect with friends and neighbors to take a ride in their car to try to find cell signal outside of the neighborhood. They found strong enough signal parked on a local bridge that crosses the Myakka River. Cars were lined up just trying to make phone calls and the calls would be spotty, some dropping or never going through. He called and it was a very short phone call. “I’m alive, our neighbors are alive, but don’t come here. Stay where you are and I will find a way to come to you.” I could hear all the emotion of the experience in that call and it was bone chilling. We again lost the ability to communicate.
A few hours later I received another call from Jake. He had just made it out of the worst hit area, dodging uprooted trees, downed power lines and flooded roads to get on to I-75. He said he was headed our way, to Miami, and would be there as soon as he could. I could hear the fear in his voice. He brought my SUV which was a good decision because our daughter’s car would have never made it through the flood waters. But with making that decision, he had less gas should he run into a road block while he was heading south, an area that got hit with the worst storm surge. He was afraid he may get stuck, run out of gas, have no food or way to communicate.
He arrived in Miami that evening and we have never held each other so tight as a family. There were many tears shed and hugs given. He shared some of his experience, the wrath he had seen and endured, and we all were thankful he was alive and at the same time scared about our future. We also were very concerned about our friends and neighbors who had also rode out the storm. Were they ok? Could they live in their homes? Did they have food to eat and water to drink? Many of them are retirees and we worried about their safety and well being. Jake felt guilty for being in Miami with power and a hot shower, and for not having checked on everyone we know before leaving.
We stayed in Miami for a couple of days knowing that our area was devastated and there were no services. We purchased supplies for tarping our roof and headed back to assess the damage. The drive back was challenging because many roads were closed and flooded but we navigated our way around with screen shots we took of the maps before losing cell service. We also were fearful of getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas. There was very little gas available, cash only and people were waiting more than 3 hours in mile-long lines just to fill up. Jake was impressed on the drive back how much clearing had already occurred in just a couple of days. Most of the roadways were passable and the flood waters had receded from the streets on our journey.
When we arrived home there was no power, no water, no internet and very limited cell service. We also could not flush toilets (with pool water) because the sewer systems were destroyed. We were able to assess the damage and while the roof shingles had been torn off in many places, what happened to a lot of homes, including ours was that the soffits were ripped out by the high, whipping winds and once that happened, the winds blew the rain up into all of the rafters of the house, causing water damage throughout. Buckets were still filled with stormwater and towels had to be hung out to dry to avoid mold. We were very fortunate to have lower humidity and cooler weather following the storm so we opened all of the windows and doors and tried to begin the drying out process. Jake also started the process of tarping our roof along with help from a wonderful neighbor. It took three days to get it done with the heat of the Florida sun and only him on the roof for safety. While he was roofing, the kids and I, along with some neighbors started on the outdoor cleanup. We lost four large live oak trees, two completely uprooted, three huge palms and a beautiful magnolia. Thousands of pieces of shingles were scattered all over the yard and the vegetative debris was significant. We hired a crew to come and cut up and move all of the large trees to the curb where they will sit until FEMA can bring in their huge claw equipment and trailers to haul it away.
A few days later, with the help of my aunt and uncle from Texas, we got a generator large enough to run our air conditioning. This was important to try to avoid further damage to our home from all of the remaining moisture in the roof, carpet, walls and ceilings. We also purchased a couple of high efficiency dehumidifiers to increase the drying power. There was no power for 8 days, many around us waited longer and some are still waiting.
There was a huge need in our community for help and I have been extremely impressed with how much help came, for free, and very quickly. There were points of distribution for tarps, water, ice MREs and hot meals. Large national restaurant corporations and small local mom and pop restaurants all started showing up and doing whatever they could to feed the people. World Central Kitchen arrived at many sites up and down the southwest Florida coast, distributing hot meals, shelf stable foods and water for anyone in need. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse and many other national organizations organized with in a couple of days to be in the area and giving whatever they could to support this region. It was humbling to use these services and at the same time it filled my heart (and belly) to see such an outpouring of support. Our local, state and national government also arrived and, in my opinion, took quick action to try to provide relief. I have been extremely impressed with how quickly relief came and thankful for every person who has given of their time to help us all. FEMA is in the area and is providing assistance along with many of the insurance companies setting up insurance “villages” to be able to go and make a claim in person, something that was very important when there is limited phone service and no internet. Without these organizations, our first couple of weeks would have been almost impossible to meet basic human needs.
Our efforts to dry out the house seem to have been mostly successful. We had an inspector come last week with a tool able to measure and see if the drywall and ceilings were still wet and thankfully we appear to be dry. We will still have to tear it all out because paint bubbled, wood trim warped and grout cracked. Most of the walls and ceiling in the house have stains and signs of water damage. With it being dry and not smelling musty we can hopefully stay in our home until the demolition begins.
At this point, about two and a half weeks post-hurricane, things are better. We still do not have internet at the house which may sound trite, but when you are trying to find information for insurance claims and contacting contractors to try to repair, it is a hinderance to making progress. We are trying to get back to some normalcy but the kids are still not back in school due to the damages at those locations and everything around us is impacted. My work has been nothing but supportive throughout the last several weeks, even shipping us Dilly Bars overnight to share with the neighbors and electric linemen. I definitely brought a little happy to the situation. It has been a challenge to work remotely with no internet. Because everyone is relying on cell networks, the ability to video call, work online or download files has been almost impossible between 7am and midnight. I’ve been creative and get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to work for a few hours. We also are bewildered about how the whole insurance claim, adjusters and settlements will work. We have never filed a claim before and the process and what you “should do” and “shouldn’t do” is confusing. We will take it one day and decision at a time but are anticipating it will take a couple of years before we get our house back to what it was based on the hundreds of thousands of homes needing repair in our area.
I want to stop to thank each and every one of you who reached out to ask how we were doing, or offer your help, or even offer your homes if we needed it. The outpouring of love and support was overwhelming and greatly appreciated. We are not through this yet and it will be a long road to getting our life back to where it was so we may still need your help as we journey through that. It might be through physical help or emotional support. I admit that I still feel the ups and downs of emotions from day to day. Some days I’m encouraged about the future and what we will build back and others I begin to sob while gardening or working out. I’m mostly sad. Sad that we had just settled in after a rough couple of years of moves. Sad that our kids are being impacted again by things out of their control, especially after having gone through COVID. I know brighter days are to come, but getting back to a feeling of stability will take time. Please continue to send your positive thoughts and prayers. We feel them.