The red convertible inched down Hibiscus Drive.
Oh my God.
Judi Woods gripped the wheel. It was the first time she had been back since evacuating.
Hurricane Ian had pulverized the front of her Fort Myers Beach neighborhood set across from the Gulf of Mexico. Water, waves and wind had ground the homes to their innards and shells. Where cute cottages had stood since John F. Kennedy was president, driveways now led to cinderblocks and sand.
How many homes had been there? 13? 14? It was hard to tell now.
The street sign was gone, replaced by a spray-painted shard of plywood.
Hibiscus led to her 1,100-square-feet home of more than 30 years, her world headquarters, a cul-de-sac of friends and the community dock where she had fallen in love. Most of the 42 homes were modest in size and stature: single story, about 1,000 squarefeet, original to the 1960s subdivision with the heavenly name of Leilani.
Nearly a third of homes had been leveled.
Partway down, the street became recognizable again. Homes stood, deeply wounded, with battered roofs and shredded walls.
Judi braked and brought both palms to her cheeks.
Her heart was breaking again. The month before Hurricane Ian hit, her partner of 14 years died unexpectedly in his sleep.
Who said God never gives you more than you can handle?
Hibiscus Drive is a street where neighbors not only know each other’s name but also their dog’s name. They were #swflstrong but also Hibiscus Drive strong: swapping numbers for engineers and insight on FEMA rebuilding rules, tracking down the owners of family photos and boats spewed across the neighborhood. The storm stripped them of their belongings and bearings, but it also bound them together. They found a different kind of shelter, with each other.
Judi knew her salmon pink home was standing, but waterlogged. Could anything inside be saved? Her mission that day was to rescue a few special things.
On the left, Judi saw Mike Drumm’s sandy-colored house.
The windows were blown out. He wasn’t there that day but he was among the few on the street who stayed through Ian. And he had quite a story to tell.
The neighbor who stayed
Mike Drumm tested positive for COVID two days before Ian. The virus forced the strong 42-year-old plumber to bed. But, on the day of the Sept. 28 storm that ranks among the strongest in Florida history, when the surge reached his knees in his single-story home, he no longer felt sick. Adrenaline won.
Around 12:30 p.m., in the thick of winds that would peak at 155 mph, he made a run for it, actually a wade because by then the water was waist deep outside. “If I had waited much longer, I would have drowned in my own home.”
He trudged through a fierce current of debris and branches to the next street, Bay Mar Drive, where his father lived in an elevated home. Mike hadn’t gone there initially because he didn’t want to get him sick.
By then, the water was up to the doorknob. “Unlock the door!” he shouted. He broke it open and joined his father, his father’s wife and her mother and two parakeets upstairs.
The water rose more, up to 15 feet throughout the island, and several inches into the elder Drumm’s second floor, where the family clung to chairs and couches.
At dark, Mike couldn‘t sleep. The wind howled. Metal debris clanked outside and sloshed in the water. He knew plenty of people had stayed in homes just like his. He prayed. At first light, he went outside to find them.
He walked toward Hibiscus but didn't recognize it. "No street signs, no landmarks. Piles of rubble, downed power lines and the whole road completely covered with inches of sand.”
The cement shell of his home was there, but the inside was decimated by seven to eight feet of surge. Doors, cabinets, toilets and drywall had been ripped out.
“My best guess was water was running so hard from the gulf to the bay and water rushed straight into the front and all the way through it.”
The scene countered the dream life the North Carolina native built on Hibiscus, seven houses from the gulf. He was a regular at the community dock at the back of the street facing the mangroves of Estero Bay.
“Every single day I was either fishing on the beach or fishing off the dock. In one sense, it feels like it’s ironic because I was, ‘look at this fish I caught in my backyard,’ it’s a little bit of payback I suppose.”
He checked each house and yard on Hibiscus and later reported on the neighborhood Facebook page, “We didn’t lose any lives.”
It seems everyone has a story to tell in the wake of Hurricane Ian.
The harrowing tales of survival. The tearful memories of lives lost. Or the recollections of a favorite family day at the beach or to a restaurant that no longer stands.
As we piece our beloved Southwest Florida back together one day at a time, we’ve created a Hurricane Hotline to allow you to share your stories and memories and even offer a thanks to someone who aided you in the recovery.
Call 239-291-9827 and leave a message. Please include your name and a phone number. Your memories could be featured in upcoming coverage of the storm and its aftermath.
The only other Hibiscus neighbors he saw were three older men in their yard. We saw your truck float by, they told him. His brand new Chevy Silverado was seven houses down.
To avoid drowning, they had climbed onto furniture, busted a hole in the ceiling and hung onto the rafters for hours until the storm passed.
Mike walked the beach, street by street, among other dazed islanders who had stayed. He called out, “HELLO? Do you need help?”
He found many survivors and became a messenger. He would text his sister in North Carolina so she could relay to relatives they were OK. He did that for dozens of people. He found people who didn’t make it, but didn’t want to talk about that.
After the first day, “it was equally heartwarming and heartbreaking.”
The heartbreaking part.
For several days after the storm, the island restricted access and no emergency relief supplies arrived, he said. Emergency responders asked, Do you have any medical needs? But no one was offering food, water or clothes. His older Hibiscus neighbors didn’t have mattresses or blankets. The phrase “starve out” was used by some uniformed law enforcement, though the sheriff denied such a policy.
“It seems like there was a communication breakdown,” he said. “If they can have sheriff’s departments from all over the state patrolling up and down the street, they can throw a case of water in the back of that patrol car or anything for people that literally have nothing. I was prepared, but I wasn’t prepared for all of my belongings to be lost. All of my hurricane preparedness was gone.”
He didn’t want to leave because he worried about not being let back on.
“They were trying to force everybody off the island.”
The heartwarming part.
In the absence of official help, several neighbors on Hibiscus who were not there told him to scavenge what food he could from their homes, to borrow their shoes. He and his dad survived on fruit snacks, granola bars, hot dog buns and a jar of peanut butter.
After spending five hours with a metal rake sifting through the foot of mud in his home for anything significant, he heard a clink in the living room. His heart jumped. He saw silver. It was his grandfather's christening cup. His grandfather’s ashes had been inside. They were lost, but the cup was irreplaceable.
Love, frustration, and mold
Fort Myers Beach opened briefly after Hurricane Ian to residents willing to walk or bike miles to their homes over the Matanzas Pass Bridge. But the town then shut down entry as crews searched for survivors and the dead.
Judi and her neighbors watched in envy as Sanibel Island’s elected leaders snapped to action, securing space at an inland hotel and communicating freely with residents.
Judi was frustrated – scratch that – irate about the lack of news coming from the town council. Some described it as a “news blackout.” Residents worried about looting and mold. Their wet homes were Petri dishes with temperatures in the 80s.
Tears, frustration and anger: First Fort Myers Beach council meeting since Hurricane Ian
Had they known they would be barred from the island, they would have cracked windows to keep the mold from taking over, rescued photos and precious jewelry when they could, several said, because you can clean mold out of homes but not wedding pictures. When they weren't allowed to enter by land, many came by boat.
The island finally opened on Oct. 9, 11 days after the storm.
The scale of Ian’s destruction came into view. Times Square, the cheerful and touristy downtown, was mostly gone, including the Dairy Queen, perfectly placed for a dipped cone and stroll on the pier, which was stripped to its skeletal pilings.
The annihilation didn’t stop there. The Whale crushed. The Cottage, Hooters, swept away. Dozens of homes and businesses dissolved into sun-kissed memories of good times, good views and good drinks.
Restaurants after Ian: 137 restaurants on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Pine Island, how they fared
Fort Myers Beach officials announced that more than 520 people were rescued, treated or transported in the early weeks after Ian. Fourteen people died.
On Hibiscus Drive, Judi parked her convertible and grimaced at the sight of her home. “Oh brother.”
Her two-bedroom home and yard had become a basin for neighborhood debris. She stepped onto the uneven landscape of wood, siding, roofing and furniture. “That’s not my couch. That’s not my chair. I wonder whose door that is?”
Judi hoped to find a few reminders of her boyfriend, Dan Miller.
It was music that drew Judi to Dan. She saw the accomplished jazz trumpeter play at the Sanibel Inn and her heart beat faster, though he was “a couple years younger,” she said with a smile, because a couple was nearly 20.
Dan died in August, just days after the couple returned from a vacation in New Orleans. He was 54. In a circuitous way, Dan was responsible for her evacuating. He gave her Jake, the long-haired dachshund who became her best friend when the puppy was small enough to fit in her hand. Jake is 9 now.
Her brother convinced her to evacuate saying, Hey, all you've got left is your dog. Don’t put his life in jeopardy.
How Judi came to be on Hibiscus is a love story too.
“I saw the little park out at the end of the street. I saw the dock. I saw the house. I saw the pool and I saw the mango tree. And I said, ‘I'll take it.’ They said, want to come inside? I said, ‘Oh, there's more?’” she recalled. “It was perfect. Perfect. Perfect for me.”
That was 1990. Lots happened in between. She built a life and health insurance business. (Her off-island office was destroyed by Ian too.) She led a mentoring program for young women for more than a dozen years. She became an advocate for fixing foster care. “I've always tried to be a problem solver, but now I'm the problem.”
The value of her home built in 1962 rocketed to five times the $100,000 she paid. Some neighbors cashed out during Florida’s most recent real estate craziness. She had no desire. “There are too many memories, and it’s not just memories, it’s where I feel comfortable, safe. That's where I belong.”
This day, as she tried to find a way inside, she chuckled at the soggy sandbags at her doorstep. What good those did.
Her front door was frozen shut. She peeked through her home office window – her “world headquarters” –but couldn’t climb in. “Oh Lord God in heaven,” she said, coughing at the musky smell of mold. “It smells something horrible in here.”
Somewhere along the way, she scraped herself and began bleeding.
She teetered on rubble, avoiding nails as she made her way to the back, wishing she had worn sturdier shoes. She paused before the green stagnant water of the pool where her nephews had learned to swim. She would not give up until she tried to salvage something.
“I’m going in my house somehow.”
As Judi was figuring out how to break into her home, at the front of the street Tim Szekely was shoveling what was left of his.
‘We’ve got a nice driveway’
Debi Szekely, 52, pointed to a heap of wire, cinderblocks and wood. “This was our main house. It was three bedrooms and one bath.”
She remembered how 17 of them had crowded inside to celebrate Tim and Debi’s 30th anniversary. They have six grown children. Their 29-year-old daughter Amber lived next door. Her house was gone too.
Tim owns a machine shop in Pittsburgh and comes to Fort Myers Beach when he can. Debi was starting to spend more time on the beach than in Pennsylvania and helps run the “I love Fort Myers Beach” Facebook page. They had just put in a pool that they never got to swim in because it wasn't quite finished.
Their hot-tub was seven doors down.
But it wasn’t the property itself Tim, 56, loved most. “We know just about everybody on the block and they’re all nice. I tell you what, more than the house, I liked all the people.”
Their neighbor Richard across the street is like family. He had their door code. As Ian rolled in, he fled to a beach hotel but they lost contact right after this text: Water is almost to second floor. Not good at all. There was no third floor.
On Hibiscus, Tim and Debi reunited with Richard, embracing him before even looking at what was left of their home. His home and belongings were washed away too. The couple raised more than $1,600 for him through GoFundMe.
There was little left to salvage of the Szekely house unless someone wanted to collect seashells scattered throughout. A neighbor’s beach-ready wheelchair was upturned in the rubble. Debi did find a white dinner plate adorned with blue flowers.
Their daughter had already talked to an architect about rebuilding. They’d have to build at least 14 feet up. “We’re going to sell our main house up in Pittsburgh,” to pay to rebuild their Hibiscus home, said Debi. “I’m doubling down. I’m putting all my money on red and spinning the wheel.”
And they'll finish the pool.
Tim, wearing flip-flops, shoveled debris from the brick driveway so they could have place to park. He seemed undeterred by the task ahead.
“The way I look at it. I clear this out of here, get all this away, this is still a nice lot. We've got a nice driveway here. We got a camper. We’ll pull it up here while we’re doing stuff."
He gazed out at the Gulf of Mexico, where the sun set in a strip of orange. “I got to say, you still look at the beach and it’s still beautiful.”
Judi entered through a sliding door in the guest bedroom. The carpet used to be blue but now was a ghastly gray, coated in several inches of slippery muck.
The walls were purple and yellow, vibrant, like Judi. She gazed up at the high water mark, which rose a few inches above the doorframe. “Unbelievable.”
Her furniture had been through a spin cycle. A dresser blocked her path to the hall. As did a mirror. Yet it still held a quote from poet Rumi taped to it. Close your eyes. Fall in love. Stay there.
Judi sat on the bed. But the mattress tipped, knocking her off balance. “Whoa!”
She paced and sighed before the barricade, evaluating options.
This time, she clutched the edge of the bed as she sat again. She dug her heels into the overturned dresser, leaned back and shimmied sideways across the bed and over the stuffed animals. She stared at the ceiling, grabbed a T-shirt to wipe away sweat and told it, “I knew I should have packed you.”
She stood and questioned what she saw at her feet. “How could spices get in here?”
Her first stop: the master bedroom.
“I wanted to get something out of here, but there’s no way.”
A heavy dresser had flipped facedown and was wedged against the bedframe. Dan’s ashes were in there. But she couldn’t reach the drawers. She would get them later.
She headed to her living room, a jumble of tipped furniture and framed photos and art. “Holy crap. Where’s the piano?"
She spotted a small cardboard box blotched with mold. She touched her heart. Inside was a porcelain tile created when her boyfriend was born. A stork carried a baby. It was personalized with his name and birth date: Daniel Gilbert Miller II, May 31, 1968.
“Isn’t that the cutest?” she said. “This I will take with me.”
Another item that survived: A collection of photos she had made for Dan with the jazz greats he had played with over the years.
“It didn’t get a drop of water on it,” Judi said. “That was a miracle.”
She presumed it floated on a bed that refused to sink. It was a kindness from a universe showing a capacity for cruelty.
'It's a shock'
Outside, Judi made the Hibiscus rounds.
Her next-door neighbor Tom Gerace, 61, and a crew were gutting his house. He smiled when he saw her. “It’s a shock when you first walk in, ain’t it?”
She walked over to say hello to Bruce Gillikin, 66, a handyman she calls when a misguided iguana or snake ends up in her pool.
“Dan was watching over you,” he said. He patted her shoulder. “I smell but…..”
Judi touched his arm. “I smell too but I don’t care.”
She turned toward the community dock jutting into the bay. The storm had sheared off the bench, but Judi could stand.
“I think I fell in love on this dock,” she said, patting it.
Debbie Lemmer meandered over. Their home is among the few raised ones on Hibiscus. The storm had trashed the bottom floor she spent seven years finishing. She and her husband own Nervous Nellie’s. Ian had inundated its dining room but spared the building, which was not so for so many other structures.
“It’s sad all that charm is gone,” said Debbie.
Judi sighed and gazed out at the back bay. Even before Ian, she feared the charm of Fort Myers Beach was threatened. Construction of the $200 million Margaritaville resort was ongoing. Modern mansions were replacing humble homes.
Now, post-Ian, she worried. Would hotel chains buy up all the land? Would Fort Myers Beach become a little Miami? The island was among the scant corners left in south Florida where living steps from the beach was not just a dream for the rich.
“I will rebuild if they don’t condemn my house,” Judi said. “You're going to rebuild right?”
Debbie said, “Oh, yes. I mean, you have to.”
“If they condemn our houses I'm screwed,” Judi said. “I'll have to put my house on stilts and it'll cost 500 to 600 grand to build a house and bring it up to the new building code on Fort Myers Beach.”
Debbie’s husband Len joined the conversation.
“I think it’s still up in the air with a lot of people,” Len said. “It will be years and years before it’s back to any semblance of normal.”
There was a good omen for Hibiscus. Debbie saw a dolphin come up for air, even as the water bobbed with trash.
“Oh buddy,” she said. “You don't want to be in that water.”
The power was still out. There was daylight and everyone had work to do.
“Alright Judi, we’ll be here,” Debbie said. “If you need a cocktail, come on down.”
“I’ve got a bottle of tequila,” offered Judi, before turning toward her car. The belongings she had managed to save fit in the trunk.
Support journalism like this by subscribing. Reach Janine Zeitlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JanineZeitlin.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: After Hurricane Ian, love, loss and miracles on Fort Myers Beach