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They were lured by the Florida dream. After Ian they wonder: What now?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/26/2022 Brittany Shammas
Foundations and supports, destroyed by Hurricane Ian's storm surge, are seen Oct. 7 along the beachfront in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post Foundations and supports, destroyed by Hurricane Ian's storm surge, are seen Oct. 7 along the beachfront in Fort Myers Beach, Fla.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Jennifer Rusk closed her eyes and placed her finger on a map of Florida, landing atop this laid-back island town on the state’s southwest coast.

That’s how she ended up here 11 years ago, after her husband persuaded her to move from Virginia to the Sunshine State, where he’d vacationed as a boy. When the couple drove across the Matanzas Pass Bridge, the arching blue roadway that connects the island to the mainland, they looked at each other and knew: “We said, ‘Oh my God, this is where we’re going to live.’”

Remembering that moment on a recent afternoon, Rusk, 51, couldn’t help but cry. She was standing on the deck of the pale-yellow cottage she and her husband bought just months after stumbling upon Fort Myers Beach. All around her: ruins.

“This is it,” she said of her home, which lost part of its roof and flooded to the second floor, leaving almost everything inside destroyed. “We were going to stay here for retirement and grow old and walk to the beach and walk our dogs and stay with our community.”

What Hurricane Ian stole from kids: Toys, shoes, stability, home

For more than a century, millions have flocked to Florida with similar visions to live out their golden years on the beach. The Florida dream exerts a powerful pull: The state consistently ranks among the fastest-growing in the nation. It is forever under construction, with new houses and condos and apartment buildings rising in already-crowded cities. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of paradise.

But Ian, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, upended the idyllic lives so many had planned for themselves in this stretch of the Sunshine State, often pouring in their life’s savings. As Floridians surveyed the damage from the near-Category 5 storm, which killed at least 114 people, some wrestled with painful questions: Should they stay and rebuild? Could they?

A member of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department marks a building as having been searched Oct. 7 in Fort Myers Beach. © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post A member of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department marks a building as having been searched Oct. 7 in Fort Myers Beach.

Florida was already in the throes of a housing crisis; the storm made it worse. Damage estimates reach into the tens of billions, and rebuilding won’t come cheap. Even before Ian, Floridians scrambled to find coverage in the state’s fragile insurance market. Moreover, as climate change makes extreme weather far more common, some question the wisdom of rebuilding on barrier islands and in other delicate coastal areas.

“What we’ve done over the years is party hardy,” said Carol Newcomb, an adjunct professor of environmental humanities at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. “We’re in a big hangover now.”

In interviews across the storm-lashed southwest coast, many residents said they were loath to give up the promise of endless summers and eternal sunshine — even as some worried they might not have a choice. They had found something here, where almost everyone is from someplace else, and they didn’t want to lose it. That was true even in neighborhoods where, days after the storm, water and power were still out and mountains of debris lined the streets.

Bob Cofield, 81, rode out the hurricane in a recliner inside his Naples trailer, jacking his feet up as the water rose around him. It was, he said, “one of those inevitable things: You know what’s coming and there’s nothing to do about it, no use getting scared, because I couldn’t go anywhere.”

As the water receded, Cofield, an Alabama native who pocketed real estate brochures when he first glimpsed the city on a motorcycle trip in 1980, took in the destruction. His van inoperable, he walked three miles from the 55-and-up mobile home park to pick up a prescription. Before kind strangers showed up to help him start repairs and find a temporary place to stay, he thought he might have to sleep in the van.

But even when a cousin called, offering to drive down from Hamilton, Ala., with a U-Haul and move him into his late aunt’s house, he refused.

“I’d like to visit. But I wouldn’t want to go up there and live,” Cofield said. “At my age, at 81, they think that I need help, that I need to be taken care of, you know. But I don’t need taken care of right now.”

Paul Arsenault cleans up on Oct. 8 after storm surge from Hurricane Ian inundated his home in Naples, Fla. Ian made landfall north of Naples on Sept. 28. © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post Paul Arsenault cleans up on Oct. 8 after storm surge from Hurricane Ian inundated his home in Naples, Fla. Ian made landfall north of Naples on Sept. 28.

A few streets over, Lawrence Plesek had set up a folding table in his now-empty trailer, spreading out a photograph, a certificate and a copy of remarks from the renewal of vows he and his wife took on a cruise ship in 2014, their 50th anniversary. He was hoping to dry them out. The couple fled the cold of the Gary, Ind., area in 1969, bringing only a pickup truck, a portable TV, two lawn chairs and a baby crib.

Recalling the day they arrived in Florida, Plesek said, “I didn’t realize that the sky was blue. Where I’m from, the sky was red from the steel mills.” Now he wasn’t sure whether he and his wife would stay in the state where they’d raised their children and spent the majority of their life together. Although their car will be replaced by traveler’s insurance, their trailer was not insured.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Plesek said. He asked for prayer.

Also grappling with uncertainty was Lori Stroup. She and her husband had decided to chase a dream of living in Sanibel in 2020, around the time they turned 50. They left not only their old state of Montana but also their old jobs. In this fresh start, Stroup would do what she had wanted to do all her life: work with animals.

Their paradise lost to Ian, Sanibel residents hope its spirit survives

The former executive assistant spotted manatees and tortoises as she walked client’s dogs, savoring the feeling of sun on her face. Her husband, a onetime fishing guide, became her partner in a quickly growing business, Serenity Sitters of Sanibel.

Ian brought that blissful new life to an abrupt end. Like much of Sanibel, the ground-level house the Stroups bought last year is uninhabitable. Their company is on hold. The couple has been staying in a friend’s mobile home, waiting to find out whether they can afford to fix their home. In the meantime, they still have to pay the mortgage.

“We thought my business was going to take off and we’d really be able to have a life there,” Stroup said. “I guess I’m just hoping that this was a freak 100-year hurricane.”

A tree downed by Hurricane Ian rests against a house in Fort Myers, Fla., on Oct. 8. © Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post A tree downed by Hurricane Ian rests against a house in Fort Myers, Fla., on Oct. 8.

For others in hard-hit areas, Ian was a sign to get out. Newcomb, the university professor, has lived in Fort Myers for more than 30 years — almost her entire adult life. She teaches sustainability, and she’s been thinking about leaving Southwest Florida for years. She was always lulled into staying. But no more.

Days after the storm struck, Newcomb made up her mind: She would sell her house and head north. She rented a place near her daughter’s in St. Augustine, about 250 miles away on the state’s Atlantic side.

“I am out of here,” she said. “It is paradise lost.”

To Newcomb, rebuilding would look something like Babcock Ranch, a community of 5,000 northeast of Fort Myers. She was a consultant on the development designed to accommodate the state’s climate — including its powerful storms. Babcock Ranch garnered a rush of publicity after residents emerged from Hurricane Ian to find that missing shingles and toppled trees made up most of the damage. The homes never lost power.

The community, Newcomb said, “really has the right ingredients.” It is 30 miles inland, entirely solar-powered, all concrete and new construction. Half the land is set aside for green spaces.

It is, in many ways, a far cry from what people loved about a place like Fort Myers Beach: charming old cottages lined up right along the sand. What they loved about it, though, was also what made it vulnerable to Ian.

“Everything that we loved about it is now gone,” said Tonya Reed, traipsing through a landscape of sand and debris to the office where she had managed vacation rentals. “Everything that’s still standing, I don’t care that much about, and that’s all that it’s going to be now from now on. The charm is gone. Fort Myers Beach is gone.”

Between talking to contractors and waiting for a structural engineer to arrive and cleaning up the heaps outside her little yellow house, Rusk allowed herself to imagine the future of the place she had come to love. In 11 years, she had become passionate about the area’s marine life, teaching residents and tourists about conservationism. She and her husband had hosted family trips and befriended their neighbors. She did not want to leave.

“Things are going to look very different,” she said. “The face of Fort Myers Beach is going to change very drastically. But it doesn’t need to turn into other places.”

It was a blank canvas, she said, ready to be painted. She listed off new dreams for the town: Maybe it could be made greener, more environmentally friendly, more sustainable. She beamed just at the thought of it.


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