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Harlem Heights neighborhoods remain flooded 7 days after Hurricane Ian

Better Together volunteers pass sandwiches to Xavier Charles, who is helping to repair his mother's flooded home in Harlem Heights on October 4, 2021.
Tara Calligan
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Better Together volunteers pass sandwiches to Xavier Charles, who is helping to repair his mother's flooded home in Harlem Heights on October 4, 2021.

In Harlem Heights, several blocks of the predominantly low-income community are still underwater.

Driving through the neighborhood, the knee-deep water is filled with storm runoff and sewage. In home after home, people are living inside with no power, no water, and not enough food.

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Tara Calligan-WGCU
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A flooded neighborhood in the Harlem Heights neighborhood in Fort Myers. Numerous blocks there remain flooded six days after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida. 10/04/22

Lizzie LaVelle is volunteering with Better Together, a nonprofit that helps at-risk families. She’s one of several volunteers offering pre-made sandwiches and asking people what they need now, a week after Hurricane Ian hit.

At these single-story apartments, the Better Together volunteers say around 15 people are barely getting by. They’re sleeping on water-soaked beds in tight quarters.

Volunteer Gisela Weigel speaks Spanish and translates what they need.

“They’ve lost everything," said Weigel. "They’ve lost their kitchen. They have nothing in the fridge. They’ve all been sleeping together in the living room. And they need beds especially for their babies.”

The curb in front of these apartments is lined with piles of water-damaged furniture, overflowing garbage bags, busted refrigerators and TVs, among lots of other stuff.

Harlem Heights after Ian
Tara Calligan
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A resident of these flooded apartments searches through discarded and damaged items that have been placed on the curb. Streets are still full of by knee-deep storm and wastewater, six days after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida. October 5, 2022

“Coming out to see the aftermath of the storm was heartbreaking,” said Mario Martinez.

Martinez is pulling soaked carpet to the curb of his parent’s apartment, which had chest-deep water the day after Ian.

Mario was born in Mexico but grew up in Harlem Heights. His parents, his three children, and four other family members are sharing his two-bedroom apartment off McGregor Blvd, while they try to fix up his parent’s home.

But right now, he’s worried about finding work.

Mario Martinez in Harlem Heights after Ian
Tara Calligan
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Mario Martinez has been in the restaurant industry for the last 10 years. He worries how he will provide for his family since he lost his job on Sanibel Island. October 4, 2022

“Having that uncertain, you know, feeling that I don't know how I'm going to take care of my rent, how I'm going to take care of my car payments," said Martinez. "Obviously, insurance and just necessities is tough. Really, really tough.”

He’s wearing a red t-shirt from The Clam Shack on Sanibel, where he used to work up until a few days ago. He doesn't know if the restaurant made it through the storm.

A few blocks over from Martinez, Stephanie Underwood is outside her home with 3-year-old son. Storm water is now a quarter way up Underwood’s driveway, and she is trying to keep him from playing in it.

Her home suffered water damage and her vehicles were totaled. Navigating insurance is on her mind.

“I never did an insurance claim before," said Underwood. "I don't know how… the waiting game. I don't know how long it's going to take. I just want to be able to fix, super scared about all this water, like my house molding and the stuff sitting in there wet. It's fear of the unknown, I guess.”

Harlem Heights resident Stephanie Underwood holding her son after Hurricane Ian
Tara Calligan
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Stephanie Underwood holds her son in her arms in front of their home in Harlem Heights. Underwood says she is extremely proud to live in the Fort Myers community. "We're very small, wear a close community," said Underwood. "We stick together. We love each other."

Underwood says many of her neighbors are single mothers without any insurance. And what people here need right now is help with home repairs.

Meghan Rose, CEO of Better Together, and her team are taking notes and getting contact information for residents here in Harlem Heights. She says the plan is to combine community and volunteer resources to help families here.

"It's hard if you have a lot of young, small children and no working vehicle or stroller," said Rose. "So, we're going to try to get a stroller, we're going to try to get … a lot of these families need beds. They have no safe, dry place to sleep. Their beds are covered in water and mold. So, we're just taking an assessment and trying to be relational and figure out how we can best serve these families.”

They plan to visit other hard-hit and sometimes neglected communities like Dunbar and Linda Loma in the coming days.

Lizzie LaVelle and Gisela Weigel with Better Together in Harlem Heights after Ian
Tara Calligan
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Lizzie LaVelle (left) and Gisela Weigel (right) with Better Together point to a home that needs a chainsaw in Harlem Heights after Hurricane Ian. October 5, 2022.

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