Hurricane Ian, dubbed a “500-year flood event” by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and blamed for at least 108 verified deaths with thousands more unaccounted for as of this writing, may prove to be one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
It is already the worst hurricane to hit Florida since the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which killed over 400 people.
So, when I left my largely unscathed Jacksonville neighborhood with an assignment to cover Ian’s aftermath in southwest Florida, I believed I was prepared — or so I thought.
My first encounter occurred when my Waze app rerouted me from an increasingly slow I-75, jammed with evacuees heading home on the Saturday following Hurricane Ian’s landfall on Wednesday, uncertain of what awaited them.
I met Pam Robinson and Darla Phillips while walking down Border Road in rural Venice, Florida, where the Myakka River had inundated homes, farms, and a wildlife preserve.
The two buddies were riding their respective horses, Papa Diamond, a rust-colored Tennessee Walking Horse, and Freedom, a 15-month-old black Percheron.
Robinson stated, “Our farm is 3 feet under water and the barn is flooded.” “The horses had to be evacuated, so we’re taking them to a friend’s ranch on higher land.”
During the storm, the roof of their barn flew off, allowing the horses to escape into the pasture. Although it may appear contradictory to people unfamiliar with livestock husbandry, the open space offers greater safety for huge animals.
When the air pressure changes with the approach of a storm, both wild and domesticated horses will congregate, move to an area with tree cover, and form a “butts-to-the-wind” huddle to protect themselves from the storm’s gusts. The horses’ instinctual action saved Papa Diamond’s life.
Robinson stated, “Sometime during the storm, a large rod blew directly through his stable.” If he hadn’t escaped the barn in time, he would have perished.
The brothers Jerry and Cameron Dakin lost a total of 600 heifers at their two Dakin Dairy Farms facilities in nearby Myakka City, despite their instinct to avoid destruction.
“I’ve never before lost more than 10 animals in a storm,” remarked a distressed man. Jerry represents the fifth generation of dairy farmers in his family.
We moved all the animals to pasture since it is safer that way in the event that a structure collapses. When I departed at 7:30 p.m. on the night of the storm, everyone was lying down along the fence line.
I returned at three in the morning and believed they were OK. When I returned outside at 8 p.m., though, I discovered something was off. I exclaimed, “Man, they’re dead!” I’ve ever seen anything like it.
“No livestock drowned,” he explained. “This is due to the wind’s intense pressure. The best thing we’ve been able to do is administer multivitamins, multiminerals, and molasses to the cattle.
Similar to sugar, molasses provided them with energy. However, they had been exposed to the storm for so long that they ran out of energy.”
The brothers and their crew were already engaged in establishing a hub to distribute hay and supplies to neighboring farmers, while being exhausted and concerned about the far-reaching consequences of their actions.
Jerry reports that the number of dairies in Florida has decreased to 52 from over 350 three years ago. The Dakins control the last two remaining dairy farms in Manatee County. Their 1,200-acre enterprise is one of the largest dairy farms and processing operations in the United States.
“If I and my brothers do not survive, Florida will be left with only 48 dairies,” he warned.
Jerry states that U.S. dairy restrictions “do not assist farmers remain in the country, and newer generations choose a different lifestyle.”
He adds, “We’re just asking for some assistance to keep us in business.” “We cannot endure on our own. We’re going to require assistance.”
From the window of my automobile, the views of Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, North Port, and the surrounding area were a mixture of reasonably undamaged communities, near-dystopian vistas, and a great deal of in-between.
Mary Jo Smith’s residence in the Sun-N-Fun Mobile Home Village & RV Park in Fort Myers is an example of one of these in-between tales. Two sets of stairs leading to her front and back doors were washed away, and she will likely need to repair her flooring.
The insurance adjusters will evaluate how much of the life savings she and her deceased pastor husband, who passed away in 2017, invested can be recovered. It is a burdensome waiting game made more onerous by the fact that much of what may be lost is emotive and irreplaceable.
Smith stated that she had lost “his wallet, his watches, and our [marriage and birth] certificates.” She was hopeful that these memory-laden fragments will eventually dry and be kept. She said, “He was a decent man.”
On the opposite end of the scale is Dianna Walz, whose mobile home in a nearby neighborhood fell over her and two friends, shattering their hopes for secure shelter in a dramatic manner.
“We were inside when the water rose, and then the trailer simply flipped over onto us.” “The walls fell and the water began to enter, and I simply held on,” Walz recalled.
She and her companions spent the next two hours balancing on a microwave oven that had landed on top of the house’s ruins, while being battered by rain and wind. She stayed there when her buddies dived into the 5-foot-high floods and swam to the roof of another trailer since she had never learned to swim.
“I only had to wait a couple more hours,” she stated. “The entire time, I was concerned about where my kitten Stewie was. He was an adorable young boy. Thereafter, there were four snakes.
I have no idea what sort they were, but one of them was long. I dispatched it with a wooden plank. The remainder were little, so I simply shooed them away. They were also trying to reach a dry area.”
Eventually, the rain ceased and the wind died down. The friends were forced to wait together for additional hours until Lee County sheriff’s deputies could rescue them.
“We were weary. We were wet. We were unhappy. But we made it,” Walz added. “However, we have been unable to locate the husband of my buddy.
We contacted every hospital, but they all said he is not there. I hope he’s somewhere out there. Even now, all I can think is, “Don’t stop believing in God.”
On their 8-acre property, Lori and Mark Stewart of North Port, Sarasota County, had a similar scenario.
She said, “People are walking through the water to reach their neighbors’ homes to make sure they’re okay.” “There are water moccasins, rattlesnakes, and alligators in the water with you, and you’re simply wading in without knowing what to expect.
Today, we canoed to the top of the Ponce de Leon bridge to get supplies from friends, and I thought to myself, ‘I am truly very fortunate.’ It is astonishing how quickly the neighborhood has come together. You wouldn’t believe the texts and assistance.”
The couple dashed from their home to rescue numerous chickens from their waterlogged coop and place them in the garage.
“I believed two of them were dead, but after wrapping them in towels and praying over them, they opened their eyes two hours later.
And we believed we had lost some of our livestock, but today a neighbor called and said, “Hey, I found your cows!” I had just completed a tearful stroll across my property while praising God for sparing my home.
My yard, which I poured my heart and years of labor into, has been completely destroyed. But we’re all alive, my animals are alive, and beautiful things continue to occur. Right now, I’m a ball of all sorts of things.”
In the meantime, the first indications of a recovery began to surface.
I spoke with representatives of organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse International Relief, which sets up operations to help clean muddied homes, chop downed trees, tarp torn roofs, and clear debris, preparing homes for damage assessment and repair and offering sufferers some spiritual solace. Volunteers anticipate remaining in the area through at least December.
“Long after the media attention has subsided, folks are still here with unmet needs, and they feel neglected,” says program manager Chandler Saylors. “It requires work and deliberateness to continue to assist and show up. It is crucial to transmit this message.”
This sentiment is shared by the founder of Operation BBQ Relief, Stan Hays.
Initiated in 2011 in response to the Joplin storm, the organization expects to remain in Southeast Florida for at least 30 days, cooking and distributing approximately 60,000 meals per day.
“If we can offer them BBQ and let them forget what’s happened to them for 10 or 15 minutes while they eat that sandwich, we will have accomplished something,” he said.
“We call it the healing power of barbecue because folks may envision themselves enjoying that block party or backyard barbeque with their families again.”
“It stinks that so many of us have lost so much,” says Josh Tino, who watched as the winds of Hurricane Ian tore the roof off his three-bedroom duplex in Bradenton as he tried to rescue his family’s valuables and their pet bearded dragon.
“However, in the end, it’s just things. It consists of plastics, metal, garments, and fabrics; it is merely material goods. And we are safe, we are together, and we will be OK. Indeed, getting there will be quite a journey. However, we’ll be alright.”