The images now emerging from Florida after Hurricane Ian are devastating. Whole communities on the Gulf Coast have been demolished. Familiar landmarks destroyed. Thousands of people are displaced from homes that are flooded, badly damaged or may no longer exist.
For many Mainers, Florida is a familiar place. Many of us have family there. Others have visited for vacation or maybe live there for part of the year. Perhaps we’ve even driven the streets that were flooded, walked the destroyed piers or been in the damaged buildings that now appear on our computer and television screens.
It is a powerful reminder that no matter the distance, storms like Hurricane Ian disrupt and harm the lives of people we know — people like us.
It will likely take weeks, maybe months, to know the full toll of the powerful hurricane that swept across the state on Wednesday and Thursday. Images that began emerging Thursday show entire neighborhoods of homes flattened in western Florida, even as the damaging storm moved northeastward across the state. It was expected to intensify into a hurricane again before hitting South Carolina.
In Florida, many people likely died. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Island communities have been cut off from the mainland. More than 2 million people remained without power on Friday. The cost of cleanup and rebuilding will be staggering.
As more details emerge about the historic storm, we are likely to hear stories of resilience, but also stories of unimaginable heartbreak.
Stories like that of Renee Smith, of Punta Gorda, who is caring for her husband, Christopher, who is paralyzed and being treated for cancer. Rather than undergoing surgery on Wednesday as he was scheduled to, Christopher was sent home from the hospital as the hurricane approached and they were unable to evacuate.
Smith told NBC News that she used zip ties to secure blankets and a tarp over Christopher on a hospital bed. She put a life jacket on him so he would not drown if the floodwaters rose too high. She covered furniture and windows with pillows and blankets to protect Christopher from flying debris. “I didn’t want him to die,” she said through tears.
She heartbreakingly — and falsely — criticized herself for being a bad caregiver because she hid, under a kitchen table, as the hurricane bore down on Wednesday. She blamed herself for not being there to comfort her husband when he was scared. Both she and Christopher survived, although Renee’s arm was broken during the ordeal.
“I am sad to tell you that while we don’t know the full extent of the damage for Lee County right now, we are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated,” the county’s manager Roger Desjarlais told the Fort Myers News-Press Wednesday night. The county, in southwestern Florida, bore the brunt of the hurricane as it made landfall as a Category 4 storm with winds as high as 155 miles per hour.
Desjarlais said the storm was the worst he has seen in his time in Florida.
An unnamed resident of Fort Myers Beach showed the extensive damage to her grandmother’s house in a video posted by the News-Press. Outside, cars and an RV stood in deep water. The backyard was full of debris. Her nearby home was destroyed.
“But, as of right now, we’re safe. We’re OK,” she said.
Although the focus now must be on sheltering and aiding the people displaced and harmed by the hurricane, we must also be mindful that we as a nation must prepare ourselves for more storms like this. Millions of people, for example, have moved to low-lying coastal areas at a time when sea levels are predicted to rise and, as we saw this week, storm surges from hurricanes can quickly and easily inundate these areas.
Just as we must have a more urgent sense of preparing for the consequences of climate change, we must also work to lessen its severity. That includes reducing our dependence on fossil fuels by using less of them and transitioning to cleaner energy sources.
For now, however, we mourn for the losses in Florida and stand ready to help.