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Living in hurricane shelters, displaced residents wracked by loss, uncertain of future

Hurricane Ian
Jay Reeves/AP
/
AP
Cots cover the floor of Hertz Arena, an ice hockey venue that has been transformed into a massive relief shelter, in Estero, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. More than 500 people were still housed at the arena more than a week after Hurricane Ian struck the Southwest Florida coast.

Hundreds of people displaced by Hurricane Ian have found shelter at the Hertz Arena in Estero, one of two shelters for storm refugees in hard-hit Lee County. For some residents who lost everything, it’s too soon to say what their next steps are.

On a recent afternoon, the Red Cross shelter at the hockey arena on Everblades Parkway was abuzz with activity. Volunteers from across the country flocked here to help, donning red vests and blue scrubs to hand out food and supplies and to provide medical care.

Rows of cots and air mattresses lined the concourse and the hockey rink, now home to people and pets who have nowhere else to go.

Susan Hoyle says she spent 40 of her 72 years on Pine Island, a place she’ll remember for its serenity, its wildlife and its “Old Florida” charm – so much of it destroyed by the deadly churn of storm surge.

Years of memories. I had vintage stuff that belonged to my mother, my grandma. All gone. I can't even begin to imagine what I lost.”
Susan Hoyle, Pine Island resident living at Hertz Arena hurricane shelter

Hoyle says she and her family rode out the storm at a mobile home park in North Fort Myers, looking out the windows to watch Ian rage, until the waves began lapping at the steps of their trailer.

After a tree came crashing down nearby, she said they braved the floodwaters to swim to higher ground. At its worst, she says the water was up to her neck.

“It was like a tsunami,” she said. “We've been through hurricanes, but this one was relentless. I mean the winds...it just kept going and going and going. And the water just kept getting higher and higher and higher…we were literally praying for our lives.”

Hoyle says everything she left behind is gone – treasured heirlooms, an American flag she says was given to the family to honor her brother’s military service in Vietnam, and her beloved cat Echo who disappeared in the chaos.

“Everything. Years of memories. I had vintage stuff that belonged to my mother, my grandma. All gone,” Hoyle said. “I can't even begin to imagine what I lost.”

Hoyle says she’s grateful to have a place to stay at Hertz Arena – but she says she has no idea what comes next.

“Where are we going to go? How long is this going to last here? I heard it’s indefinitely. But you never know. And nobody really wants to stay indefinitely unless it’s your house,” Hoyle said. “So just take one day at a time. That's all you can do.”

Local officials said as of Friday, there were about 900 people staying in Lee County’s shelters. They estimate thousands of residents will need help finding temporary housing in the weeks and months to come.

WLRN