Rochesterites help Floridians dig out of Hurricane Ian mess
While Bruce Rodgers headed to Sanibel Island, Florida, to deal with a family member's home, Jessica Bradford of the Rochester Salvation Army returned from two weeks of providing emotional and spiritual support to the storm's victims.
ROCHESTER — The contents of his luggage looked more like the kit of a man heading for the woods than his mother-in-law's house, but Bruce Rodgers needed to be prepared.
Bruce and his wife, Kristi Rodgers, both of Rochester, planned to catch an early flight Friday morning, Oct. 21, to Fort Meyers, Florida, and, with luck, would be on Sanibel Island by that evening.
A neighbor of his mother-in-law informed him that her house is still standing. The home stands on stilts with the bottom supports about 10 feet up. The storm surge on the island was reported to have peaked at 12 feet, but the neighbor said it did not get that high in the neighborhood where the house stands.
Before he left for the Sunshine State, Bruce said he was counting his blessings for a couple of reasons. First, about two weeks before the hurricane hit Florida, his mother-in-law, Jan Vap, came to Rochester for a medical procedure. That meant he did not need to head down and evacuate her before the storm. Also, as a long-time Floridian, Vap secured the hurricane shutters on her home.
Support for victims
Jessica Bradford has trained for this.
As a counselor working for the Rochester Salvation Army, Jessica is sent to disaster areas in order to provide emotional and spiritual care. Last summer, she was deployed to International Falls, Minnesota, to deal with devastation from flooding in the region.
In September, she went to Fort Myers, Florida, to help victims of Hurricane Ian.
"We'd go door-knocking to check on people," Jessica said.
One woman came out of the remains of her home, and right away, Jessica said, she could tell the woman needed help.
"She introduced herself, and I told her she was not OK," Jessica said. The woman began to cry. As it turned out, she'd be diagnosed with cancer the day before the storm and, about two weeks after the hurricane had come and gone, this had been the woman's first day back in her home.
The needs, Jessica said, were great. Most people in the city had no food, no water; one woman whose grandchildren were at her home, had no diapers.
"There were no diapers in Fort Myers," Jessica said. "We went back to the command station and got what she needed. We requested some diapers and took them back to her. She was beyond grateful for everything."
A popular retirement community, Fort Myers has more than its share of residents who use CPAP machines. However, no one could find distilled water for the machines.
"It's just not something you think of," Jessica said.
Debris lined the streets of Fort Myers, Jessica said. As she drove around town, the possessions of a family were often clearly visible, detritus stacked on the curb, sofas and beds ruined by water. The most heartbreaking sight, she said: cribs.
As Jessica was leaving Fort Myers, students were starting to get back to school, though online only. After distance learning for so long due to COVID-19, to return to that learning model was hard on people she met.
"People are still having their daily struggles on top of this disaster they’re going through," Jessica said. People who face addictions or financial woes, those problems are only made worse when a hurricane takes away the basics of modern living.
Still, in the midst of it all, there was giving.
Neighbors helping neighbors
In wealthy neighborhoods, no less damaged despite the affluence, Jessica said residents would try to refuse help, asking instead that water and food be taken to poorer areas of the city.
"They said no, give it to someone who needs it, and we’d say, no, now you are the people who need it," Jessica said.
One woman, she said, stood out. A woman in her 60s named Dody had been living in FEMA housing that she'd obtained after the last storm that slammed into the Fort Myers area. But when Hurricane Ian arrived, that home was lost as well.
"She would come and see us every day," Jessica said of Dody. "She'd cry, she'd laugh. She'd take food and give it to other people.
"That’s just the sense of community going on down there," Jessica said.
Jessica said everyone had a story to tell, stories like holding a garage door in place while the water rose. In addition to the food and water, people seemed to need to talk about that trauma.
"If they needed to cry, we allowed them to cry," she said. "We allowed them to talk about their experiences because a lot of people hold that inside. It is good to talk about it."
Seeing the aftermath
Bruce said over the years, he'd often visited Sanibel Island, which is located right across a narrow bay from Fort Myers, connected by a bridge that was damaged in the storm.
"It’s a paradise," Bruce said, describing the island in the best of times. "The island is a vacation destination for people all over the world."
Flying into Fort Myers, he said, he noticed something different right away. The lush green of the landscape had turned brown after being swamped with saltwater from the sea.
Everywhere, power lines were down. And, despite linemen from across the country working on scene — RPU sent crews to Florida after Ian had struck — he hears that repairs will need to be made house-to-house before the power is fully turned back on. The process could take months.
"(Hurricane Ian) hit Sanibel's beach and absolutely carved a path right down through Fort Myers," he said.
Touring the Island on Sunday, he saw a boat in a tree, and the lighthouse at the top of the island, though standing, lost much of the beach around it and several nearby homes.
His mother-in-law's home, built in 1981 with the latest building codes, still stood. However, "Homes built prior to the 1970s are gone," he said. "They’re on the ground."
Just getting on the island was a process. He needed proof — a notarized letter — that he had business on the island, as law enforcement was trying to limit access to prevent looting.
While that did not seem to be the problem at his mother-in-law's house, there were other concerns. The storage shed on the ground was ruined, as were the items inside. The swimming pool and its electrical components were ruined. His mother-in-law's car was a complete loss.
Still, Bruce said, she's lucky. Everything was insured, and all that was lost were things. His wife's mother remains safe in Rochester where she'll stay until the power, water and sewer are restored across Sanibel Island.
Despite the destruction, Bruce said he thinks the local and state government are doing "unbelievable work" to fix the damage to property and infrastructure.
As for the damage to people's lives, that will be a longer process, Jessica said.
One day, Jessica said she accompanied a lady with Canines 4 Christ, a therapy dog organization, as they went to a retirement community.
"There was an older gentleman who came out, hugged the dog and cried and cried, and went back into his home," Jessica said. "That’s what he needed at that point."
Want to help?
Several nonprofit organizations are helping Floridians recover from the impact of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall at Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 28, 2022, as a Category 4 storm.
The American Red Cross has a special fund set up for relief efforts for the storm.
Christian aid organization Samaritan's Purse is also focusing relief efforts in Florida.
And donations to the Salvation Army will go to fund its works including efforts to help recovery from Hurricane Ian in Florida.
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