Hurricane Ian caused massive destruction throughout the Gulf Coast of Central Florida. The storm tore off the roof of the largest healthcare facility in Fort Myers, FL, and hundreds of providers raced to move their patients to safety.
The experience was particularly harrowing for home-based caregivers cut off from medical facilities. The state is known for its elderly population. Many people had to care for their loved ones while they moved inland ahead of the storm, but others chose to stay put, especially those with mobility issues.
Renee Smith, a Florida resident, recently spoke about her experience taking care of her husband, Christopher, at their home around 24 miles north of Fort Myers. She recently took him home from the hospital after he became paralyzed from the waist down due to prostate cancer. The disease metastasized his spine, limiting his range of motion.
He was scheduled to go in for chemotherapy the day the hurricane made landfall, so it had to be rescheduled.
The storm knocked out power for some 2.6 million local residents.
Renee called the experience “terrifying” during an emotional interview on Thursday. With winds up to 150 mph, she had to use whatever she could find to secure her husband to the hospital bed.
“I took some blankets and I put some holes in them with scissors and I zip-tied them to the hospital bed and then I took a big tarpaulin that had grommets and I zip-tied that over it,” she said. “And then I put pillows and plastic bags and I duct-taped them to the top of the sideboard and I put pillows between the sideboard and the window because I didn’t want him to get cut up to death if the window blew in, and then I put a life jacket on him so that if the water came in, he wouldn’t drown, he would float.”
Once she made sure her husband was safe, she ran into the kitchen and hid under a fort made with pillows and blankets. Renee said Ian was the worst storm she had ever seen in the many years she’s lived in Florida. She compared it to Hurricane Charlie from 2004, which she said only lasted an hour.
But she described Ian as “awful and long-lasting.”
“It got dark in the middle of the day,” she said. “It was almost like nighttime and when the rain started it was like snow. You couldn’t see.”
Their home suffered extensive damage as well.
“You could hear the chimney getting ripped off the roof,” she said. “I was afraid it was going to come in through the roof and crush me even though I was under the table.”
Renee said she didn’t get any sleep that night and felt bad for not being able to keep her husband company during the storm. But she woke up the next day to find a symbol of hope. A bald eagle was perched on top of what was left of the tree in her front yard.
The death toll of the storm has reached 21 and is expected to rise as first responders continue looking for those who have been reported missing.
Search and rescue teams have so far made contact with 3,000 people who chose to shelter in place.
Two people died on Sanibel Island, which has been cut off from the mainland after the storm took out a section of the causeway bridge. Two others died in Sarasota County, including one person who drowned while trying to drain their pool.
“Watching the water from my condo in the heart of downtown, watching that water rise and just flood out all the stores on the first floor, it was heartbreaking,” said Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson.
Terry Mazany went through a similar experience during the storm. He chose to shelter in place on the 22nd floor of a Fort Myers high-rise with his wife and his 91-year-old mother as the water rose and winds whipped the building.
“We are trapped. There is eight feet of water around us,” Mazany told reporters. He added that the elevators stopped working after the power went out.
“It started relatively manageable, but the last 12 hours we have dealt with that freight train of 100-plus mile an hour winds shaking the building, swaying,” he said.
The storm has since been downgraded to a tropical storm as it moves north toward South Carolina.