After Hurricane Ian took everything, a hard-hit block joined together

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SAN CARLOS ISLAND, Fla. — Almost everyone at Joe Fernandez lost everything in the storm.

Many lived in the RV parks and mobile home communities clustered along Main Street on this small piece of land between Fort Myers and Estero Island. The waters to the north are known as Hurricane Bay, and for a terrifying stretch this week, the line between land and sea became blurred. Ian, one of the most fearsome hurricanes to ever hit the country, turned this part of southwest Florida into an epicenter of destruction.

And that left many who live here with nowhere to go. Nowhere but Joe Fernandez. The motorsports shop first became a shelter, then a food pantry. Friday night it became a place to process, to mourn. A place to find strength and community. Most at the impromptu gathering did not evacuate, trading stories of survival over cans of hard seltzer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Their accounts are harrowing and hard to fathom: Twenty people huddled together in a small apartment on the second floor of one of the few two-story buildings while the water climbed up the stairs. The sight of boats lifted from the nearby marina crashing into houses in the storm surge. The sound of trapped residents banging on windows as their homes flood. Close calls and heroic rescues.

“This was kind of a ‘Walking Dead’ type of apocalypse,” said Fernandez, 32. “That’s what it feels like.”

Every disaster tests a community’s abilities, and while the authorities tackled the mammoth task of rescuing the stranded and finding the dead, many residents were forced to help each other. All along Ian’s destructive path, people banded together, sharing generators, fuel and medicine, emptying their cupboards and heating freezers for communal cooking.

Often, in the wake of such disasters, frayed nerves and petty crimes get a lot of attention. But reports of fights at the gas pump or a looted store overshadow a much more common characteristic of a hurricane’s aftermath: the tightening of the social fabric of a neighborhood. Residents trade insurance tips and help each other clear trash; they knock on the doors and give out water.

And this kind of camaraderie is even more important in vulnerable areas. Places in homes for the elderly or people without the means to evacuate. When a massive storm like Ian hits, neighbors in places like San Carlos Island are almost always the first to respond.

San Carlos Island does not have the beautiful, towering seaside resorts of some of its neighbors. It is home to snowbirds, service workers and a large commercial shrimp industry. Patrons of its waterfront tiki bars can park their boats outside and drink barefoot, and those who live there year-round are on a first-name basis.

A hurricane separated the island from mainland Florida in the 1920s, and it is now considered part of the city of Fort Myers Beach, which has emerged as ground zero in Ian’s aftermath.

Fernandez has run Alls In Custom repairing boats and bikes on the island for five years. Originally from Cuba, he and his older brother, Yunior, left the island as children during the 1994 exodus. They were among the thousands who left on rafts and boats after Fidel Castro said anyone who wanted to leave the island, was free to flee. The siblings were apprehended about a dozen miles from Key West and held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

They have now spent more time in the United States than they did in Cuba, and Fernandez treats his San Carlos neighbors like extended family. It was never a question of leaving the island – even in the thick of the storm.

Yunior recalled driving to his brother’s home when they lost contact and trying to convince him to join him somewhere safer inland. He refused.

“Any other person would have been like, ‘Let’s go,'” said Yunior, 37. “But he was just like, ‘do me a favor, bring back propane, bring back water.’ I’ll stay here and feed my friends.”

As the flood receded, Fernandez had a sense that the community needed to rely on each other. The shop, where he modified speedboats, four-wheeled motorcycles with shimmering paint and ornate designs, was destroyed by nearly 10 feet of floodwaters. But he had a couple generators. He set them up and started inviting people over.

Using what wasn’t destroyed in the storm, he put together a phone charging station and a few hoses, giving residents two essential services they’d lost when the power and water went out: a way to check in on friends and a place to take a shower . He opened his freezer and started cooking sausage, chicken and fish. Hot meals had also been in short supply.

“I don’t care about the material things—I don’t know how to get it back, but…” he said, trailing off.

Soon enough, his neighbors began to show up—navigating through cracked streets and piles of trash to gather around his grill. They hugged. Once in a while someone would make a joke, an attempt to find some much needed comic relief. But little by little, the reality of their ordeal began to sink in.

“All my people are responsible,” Mike Smith said, pausing to blink back tears. “But it’s setting in, man.” The 46-year-old tallied his losses: the boat he slept in, the boat he fished in, his truck with $3,000 worth of tools for the construction business he had just started.

“These guys are all my adopted family, you could say that,” he said, looking around. “Everybody here lost everything, literally lost everything.”

A few meters away, Kristendag was working the grill. It was a familiar place for Day, a chef at an upscale restaurant in a nearby Marriott, but unusual circumstances. First, he had no spices. Another neighbor named Erika walked down the road to her home, where she, Day and more than a dozen other people, several cats and a dog rode out the storm together.

She returned with three jars: “Salt, pepper, and Erika’s essence,” she said. “Same as in Emeril’s essence, except I won’t pay five dollars for it.”

Day described fighting through raging water in the middle of the storm and helping to pull open a door to rescue someone trapped in a laundry room. The friends and neighbors huddled in patio chairs around a kitchen table, hoping their second-story refuge was high enough.

Later, when Day returned to his home off Main Street, he found a boat crashed through his living room.

A runaway boat also hit Deborah Barton’s house, but that’s all she knows. She hasn’t been able to find her five-wheeler since.

“It’s either under the boat or in the mangroves,” she said. Barton, 54, works in a bar on the island and has lived here for 23 years. She doesn’t have much of her own to give, but has given out water and canned goods to those who need them more. There are a lot of snowbirds on the island, she said, “but it’s also full of locals.”

“Servers, bartenders, everybody that lives down here, that’s what you’re seeing right now,” Barton said. “We all pull together and try to help each other no matter what.”

Several people at the cookout noted that they had yet to see law enforcement or emergency crews in their neighborhood, although rescue helicopters buzzed overhead and were likely performing missions on Sanibel Island, west of Fort Myers Beach, which was cut off from the mainland when Ian made landfall the only connecting bridge.

“We’re not counting on the government, we’re hoping the government comes through, but frankly, they’re saving the people of Sanibel,” Barton said. “They’re pulling bodies out of the water. That’s their first priority, they’re still rescuing.”

She was in group texts with other locals, all checking in with a word or two: Alive. Alive. Homeless, alive.

A search and rescue team eventually arrived Saturday. Fernandez didn’t seem surprised that authorities went to other areas first: “You realize everything is tourism, it gets help, it gets helped,” he said. “This is where everything gets stuck.”

People came and went on Fridays, bringing gas and browsing the makeshift market set up on shelves in front of his store. They carried dry socks, large cans of black beans, packets of ramen, tampons, and hydrogen peroxide. Fernandez’s dogs – three pit bulls and a Rottweiler – picked scraps from the barbecue.

His parrot, Marcos, bore the stress of the week most visibly, trembling and ruffled spotted feathers.

Fernandez sat on a salvaged picnic table and called out to people passing by, inviting them in for a pork roast.

“These people,” he said, “they need something to lean on.”

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