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Ian savages trailer park hit by tornado in January; leaves unexpected freedom for resident

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Tom Bayles
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WGCU
When the storm surge was more than five feet high at the Tropicana 55+ mobile home community during Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022, the hitch from a floating mobile home came through a window in Douglas Loria's unit, then floated away

On any given day before Hurricane Ian neighbors parked their golf carts in front of Douglas Loria’s trailer at the Tropicana 55-plus mobile home community. The days were often sunny. The breeze often light.

The conversations would go on and on.

“It’s a wonderful community if you like talking to people all the time,” Loria said. “They go by and say ‘hi’ and you know, you drop what you’re doing and talk fifteen, twenty minutes, half an hour.

“I’m going to miss that,” he said, standing shirtless in the mobile home that was all but destroyed by the Hurricane Ian last month. “That’s probably the biggest thing.”

Loria, after spending a career as a banker in Chicago, settled into Fort Myers years ago and bought an RV, which he recently parked behind his trailer in Tropicana. Like most folks, he slowly accumulated things for around the house, yard sales finds, gifts, memories from earlier in his life.

Ian was not the first severe storm to shatter Loria’s tranquil life at the Tropicana community this year. In January, a tornado that was one of six that day, ushered in by a powerful winter storm system that moved ashore from over the Gulf of Mexico, ravaged Tropicana as well as other nearby trailer parks and homes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the tornadoes touched down in Collier, Lee, and Charlotte counties. The National Weather Service said the twister that hit Tropicana was an EF-2, the strongest to hit the area since 2016.

When the tornado touched down in the trailer park, roofs went airborne. Some homes collapsed. It was mayhem for a few minutes, but nobody died.

Nearly everybody rebuilt. Happy his trailer was spared and anxious to get the community back to normal, Loria set about helping the less fortunate make repairs.

“About 50 of them got damaged” in the tornado, Loria said. “And I would say about two weeks ago all those repairs were completed and then the hurricane came, and it took everyone’s roof off – again. Or flattened it.”

Hurricane Ian pushed at least five feet of storm surge nearly two miles into the park. Winds gust to nearly 100 mph. Nearly every trailer was wrecked and, this time, a resident was killed by the storm.

Most of those with trailers at Tropicana are snowbirds, the nickname for those who spend warmer months up north and then head to Florida where it is warm in the winter.

Some out-of-state owners called Loria to see how their trailer fared: could he fix it a second time? Others drove down and saw for themselves that a new roof and some of Loria’s handiwork would not fix things this time.

Hurricane Ian was so powerful it wiped out the community’s sense of hope and optimism that was so pervasive after the tornado.

“A lot of them just came and looked and said ‘I’m walking away. I don’t even want to see what’s inside. They can just demo the house,’ ” Loria said. “Nobody’s fixing anything in here. It’s not fixable.”

Loria was staying with a friend when Ian’s full fury hit Tropicana. The winds destroyed his RV out back. Inside, the five feet of storm surge churned for hours.

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Tom Bayles
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Douglas Loria shows how high the storm surge rose inside his mobile home, which is elevated three feet off the ground by blocks, during Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022

When the water drained out through the living room floor, it created a whirlpool: TVs and chairs, pictures, and lamps – all the things Loria had accumulated was left in a round, muddy pile.

And that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened: With no choice but to throw everything away, Hurricane Ian gave Loria a new life at age 71.

“In thinking about this you have to look at this in another way. I’ve now become free,” he said in the mostly empty mobile home park days after the hurricane. “I don’t have the obligation of taking care of this house. My RV is destroyed so I don’t have to worry about that anymore. All my loans and debts or whatever have been paid.”

Loria rinsed off a few, truly precious items and moved them to a tiny storage container that was going to be picked up the following day.

Loria was leaving when the storage unit did, never to return. The trailer, he knew, would be among all the others set for demolition. No worries here.

“I am free to go wherever,” he said, a smile on his face amidst the destruction. “I feel good.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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