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After Hurricane Ian took everything, one hard-hit block banded together

Betsy Hayward and her husband John Riili try to salvage belongings from their RV mobile home on San Carlos Island in the Fort Myers, Fla., area, on Sept. 30, 2022. (Octavio Jones/For The Washington Post)

SAN CARLOS ISLAND, Fla. — Nearly everyone at Joe Fernandez’s place lost everything in the storm.

Many lived in the RV parks and mobile home communities clustered along Main Street on this small patch of land between Fort Myers and Estero Island. The water to the north is known as Hurricane Bay, and for one terrifying stretch this week the line between land and sea blurred. Ian, one of the most fearsome hurricanes to ever hit the country, turned this patch of southwest Florida into an epicenter of devastation.

And it left many who live here with no place to go. No place but Joe Fernandez’s. The motor sport shop became a shelter first, then a food pantry. By Friday night, it turned into a place to process, to grieve. A place to find strength and fellowship. Most at the impromptu gathering didn’t evacuate, and they swapped stories of survival over cans of hard seltzer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Their accounts are harrowing and hard to fathom: Twenty people huddled in a small apartment on the second floor of one of just a few two-story buildings while water climbed the steps. The sight of boats lifted from the nearby marina slamming onto houses in the storm surge. The sound of trapped residents pounding on windows as their homes flooded. Close calls and heroic rescues.

“This was some ‘Walking Dead’ type of apocalypse,” Fernandez, 32, said. “This is what it feels like.”

Every disaster tests the mettle of a community, and while authorities dealt with the gargantuan task of rescuing the stranded and finding the dead, many residents were forced to help each other. All along Ian’s destructive path, people banded together, sharing generators, fuel and medicine, emptying their cupboards and warming freezers for collective cookouts.

Often, in the wake of such catastrophes, fraying nerves and petty crimes receive outsize attention. But reports of fights at the gas pump or a looted store overshadow a much more common characteristic of a hurricane’s aftermath: the tightening threads of a neighborhood’s social fabric. Residents swap insurance tips and help each other clear debris; they knock on doors and pass out water.

And this sort of camaraderie is even more important in vulnerable areas. Places home to the elderly or people without the means to evacuate. When a massive storm like Ian hits, neighbors in places like San Carlos Island are almost always the first responders.

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San Carlos Island doesn’t have the glitzy, towering beach resorts like some of its neighbors. It’s home to snowbirds, service industry workers and a large commercial shrimping industry. Patrons of its waterside tiki bars can dock their boats outside and drink barefoot, and those that live there year-round are on a first-name basis.

A hurricane separated the island from mainland Florida in the 1920s and it’s now considered part of the town of Fort Myers Beach, which has emerged as a ground zero in Ian’s aftermath.

Fernandez has run Alls In Custom fixing up boats and bikes on the island for five years. He’s originally from Cuba, and he and his older brother, Yunior, left the island as children during the 1994 exodus. They were among the thousands who departed on rafts and boats after Fidel Castro said anyone who wanted to leave the island was free to flee. The siblings were apprehended about a dozen miles from Key West and held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

They’ve now spent more time in the United States than they did in Cuba, and Fernandez treats his San Carlos neighbors like extended family. Leaving the island was never a question — even in the thick of the storm.

Yunior recalled driving to his brother’s home when they lost contact and trying to convince him to join him at a safer spot inland. He refused.

“Any other person would’ve been like, ‘Let’s go,’” Yunior, 37, said. “But he was like just, ‘Do me a favor, bring back propane, bring back water. I’m gonna stay here and feed my friends.’”

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As the floodwaters receded, Fernandez had a sense the community would need to rely on each other. The shop where he modified speedboats, four-wheelers and motorcycles with shimmering paint jobs and ornate designs was ruined by nearly 10 feet of floodwater. But he had a couple generators. He set them up and began inviting people over.

Utilizing what wasn’t ruined in the storm, he put together a phone charging station and a couple hoses, providing residents two essentials services they had lost when the power and water went out: a way to check in on friends and a place to shower. He cracked open his freezer and began cooking sausage, chicken and fish. Hot meals had also been in short supply.

“I don’t care about the material stuff — I don’t know how I’m going to get it back, but …” he said, trailing off.

Soon enough his neighbors began to emerge — navigating through cracked streets and piles of debris to come together around his grill. They hugged. Once in a while someone cracked a joke, a bid to find some much needed comedic relief. But little by little, the reality of their ordeal began to sink in.

“All my people are accounted for,” Mike Smith said, pausing to blink back tears. “But it’s setting in, man.” The 46-year-old tallied his losses: the boat where he slept, the boat where he fished, his truck with $3,000 in tools for the contracting business he had just started.

“These guys are all my adopted family, I guess you can say,” he said, looking around. “Everybody here lost everything, literally lost everything.”

A few feet away, Christian Day worked the grill. It was a familiar spot for Day, a chef at an upscale restaurant in a Marriott nearby, but unusual conditions. For one, he didn’t have any spices. Another neighbor named Erika walked down the road to her home, where she, Day and more than a dozen other people, several cats and a dog rode out the storm together.

She returned with three jars: “Salt, pepper and Erika’s essence,” she said. “Same as in Emeril’s essence, except I’m not paying five bucks for it.”

Day described struggling through the ripping water in the middle of the storm and helping haul open a door to save someone trapped in a laundry room. The friends and neighbors squeezed together in patio chairs around a kitchen table and hoped their second-story refuge was high enough.

Later, when Day returned to his home off Main Street, he found a boat crashed through his living room.

A runaway boat hit Deborah Barton’s house, too, but that’s all she knows. She hasn’t been able to find her fifth-wheel RV since.

“It’s either under the boat or in the mangroves,” she said. Barton, 54, works at a bar on the island and has lived here for 23 years. She doesn’t have much of her own to give, but has been passing out water and canned goods to those who need them more. There are a lot of snowbirds on the island, she said, “but it’s also full of locals.”

“Servers, bartenders, everybody that lives down here, that’s what you’re seeing right now,” Barton said. “We all pull together and try to help each other no matter what.”

***

Several people at the cookout noted that they had not yet seen law enforcement or emergency response teams in their neighborhood, although rescue helicopters buzzed overhead, likely conducting missions in Sanibel Island, west of Fort Myers Beach, which was cut off from the mainland when Ian collapsed the only connecting bridge.

“We don’t count on the government, we hope the government comes through, but honestly, they’re rescuing people from Sanibel,” Barton said. “They’re pulling bodies out of the water. That’s their first priority, they’re still rescuing.”

She was in group texts with other locals, everyone checking in with one or two words: Alive. Alive. Homeless, alive.

An urban search and rescue team eventually arrived Saturday. Fernandez didn’t seem surprised that authorities went to other areas first: “You realize anything that’s tourism, it’s getting aid, it’s getting helped,” he said. “This is where everything gets stuck.”

People came and went on Friday, bringing gas and browsing the makeshift market set up on shelves in front of his shop. They carried dry socks, big cans of black beans, packets of ramen, tampons and hydrogen peroxide. Fernandez’s dogs — three pit bulls and a Rottweiler — picked at scraps from the grill.

His parrot, Marcos, wore the week’s stress most visibly, squawking and ruffling patchy feathers.

Sitting on a salvaged picnic table, Fernandez called out to people passing by, inviting them in for roast pork.

“These people,” he said, “they need something to lean on.”

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