FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Scott Lumley was among this beach community’s most vulnerable residents, which made him no match for Hurricane Ian.
But Lumley, originally from New Jersey, loved beach town life. He told his friends he never wanted to return to his native state, despite entreaties from relatives. Never married, he got to know neighbors as a window washer at the strip mall where his mother once ran a bookstore, the Beach Book Nook, after she retired.
So it was friends Lumley turned to for shelter as Hurricane Ian bore down on the island: a couple he had been living with since January, when they saw him at a local bus stop during another storm, his head bruised from a recent mugging.
Lynn Krinkey and Don Romano said their single-story bungalow on the island seemed safe. It wasn’t on the beachfront and was raised off the ground by about three feet. Another friend came to ride out the storm with them, too.
But when the hurricane hit Wednesday, storm water soon began to creep up the front stairs. Krinkey, 59, said she called 911 to ask for help evacuating Lumley.
“We told them we had a handicapped person. They said they couldn’t come,” Krinkey said. By then, storm winds had whipped up and the county’s first responders were ordered to shelter until the gusts dropped.
They watched the afternoon news until the power went out, Krinkey said, and “the house was full of water in no time.”
Outside, she could see their car submerged, and then turn upside down, with only the round edge of the tires visible above the rising water.
By 3 p.m., water had nearly reached the ceiling. The group tried without success to shelter atop the garage and deck. Then, back inside as waters kept rising, they clung to a mattress that became their makeshift float, Krinkey said.
Her husband, Romano, 58, who works in maintenance at a hotel, started hitting the ceiling inside the house, trying to break into the attic so the group could shelter there with the couple’s pets. He kept striking it even after a screw lodged in his right hand. His friend joined in.
Finally, he made a hole big enough for his wife to crawl through.
Romano followed, then they tried to lift Lumley up with help from their friend, a man named Chris, down below.
“We tried to get him but we couldn’t,” Krinkey said. “I feel awful about it, but I think if we kept trying we three would have all been washed away.” About 200 pounds, Lumley was too heavy to budge, the couple said.
Chris grabbed an extension cord and, outside, attempted to tie himself and Lumley to the chimney, but rising storm water washed them onto the nearby deck, Romano said. Lumley began to struggle, turning blue. Chris performed chest compressions, but, they said, Lumley soon died. The storm ripped off the deck and took Lumley’s body with it.
“The water just washed him away,” Krinkey said.
Chris was also washed away, but they later learned that he survived with a broken collarbone.
As the storm raged, Krinkey and Romano spent the night holding hands in the attic and praying to survive. Eventually, they watched as storm waters receded.
The next morning, they walked about six miles to the hotel where Romano works, the Sand Castle. They had no cellphone service, but paramedics deployed to the island let them call the hotel owner, who gave them a free room, where they have stayed along with their two dogs, a Jack Russel terrier named Pork Chop and a chihuahua, Tiger Lily.
“He thought we were dead,” Romano said of the owner, as he stood outside his second-floor room at the hotel on Friday. All 21 first-floor rooms were gutted by Ian’s storm surge.
At least 23 people had been determined to be victims of the storm as of Friday evening, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said, but officials cautioned that confirming causes of death was a slow and deliberate process and that the toll was likely to rise as medical examiners completed more autopsies. The sheriff’s office and medical examiner did not respond to calls about Lumley.
Untold others were also missing.
“We don’t know how many passed away,” said dentist Nick Dundee, 68, as a neighbor helped him and his wife wheel a shopping cart full of salvaged belongings off the island on Friday.
Jay Highley said an elderly neighbor was rescued from his home after the storm, and his daughter was hospitalized.
“They hauled him off. I don’t know if he made it or not,” Highley, 66, a retired business owner, said as he and his wife surveyed damage to their home, their street packed with a hazardous sea of waterlogged, nail-studded lumber.
Two other men had to be rescued Thursday from a home where they were swept after the storm, said Joe Orlandini, a contractor who has lived in town for 20 years. Orlandini said he helped a neighbor evacuate her 3-year-old asthmatic son after they ran out of medication on Thursday.
“I got a message this morning that they got him to a hospital,” said Orlandini, 50.
The town’s paved main street was buried Friday in a swampy mix of mud and sand. The storm had tipped trucks into pools of murky green storm water and sailboats into gutted restaurants. There was no power or water at most homes and businesses. Coast Guard helicopters passed overhead regularly, their buzz mixing with the constant beep of alarms.
The Lighthouse Resort Inn & Suites Tiki Bar, where Lumley was once a regular, had been converted into a shelter Friday for about 30 people, including staff. Brenda Gland, 55, a retired bar owner, rode the storm out there.
Gland, who has throat cancer, said she lost her home and was struggling to find diabetes medication and food. She found a plastic bucket and a pair of Nike sandals and slipped them on to walk the muddy streets to forage for food.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she said.
Romano and his wife said they still felt safe at the otherwise empty Sandcastle Beach Club. His wife worried she may have cracked a rib escaping the storm. Romano’s right hand was bruised, a bone possibly broken from beating on the ceiling, but he was eager to stay and start rebuilding the hotel.
Romano said he has no idea where Lumley might be. When he talked to firefighters camped with dozens of other first responders and National Guard troops near the remains of the town’s Times Square business district on Friday, he said, they told him the body had not been found.
“But there’s so much debris, he could be under one of them houses,” Romano said. “They said they found three bodies behind our place, washed into the canal.”
Romano gave police a description of Lumley to help as they search for his body and thought about how much Lumley had deteriorated in recent years. Unable to bathe or leave the house on his own, he relied on visiting nurses. When he fell out of his recliner, the couple would summon paramedics, but Lumley refused to be hospitalized, unwilling to leave his beloved beach town.
“I probably could have helped him some other way,” Romano said, choking back tears. “Nothing’s worse than drowning, especially in salt water.”
Sitting beside him outside the battered hotel, Krinkey said she wanted to contact Lumley’s sister in New Jersey but wasn’t sure how: The number was saved in her cellphone, its battery dead. The couple had been unable to contact their own siblings to let them know they survived.
Their thoughts kept returning to Lumley.
“It was hard to sleep last night. I kept seeing his face,” Krinkey said, clutching around her shoulders a red, white and blue blanket that a neighbor had given her after the storm, along with the Fort Myers Beach shirt she was wearing.
“I haven’t really broke down. I think I’m still in shock. I can’t seem to get warm.”