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How Little Gasparilla Island is recovering after Hurricane Ian

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In hurricane-ravaged southwest Florida, the long road to recovery is coming into focus. Residents are returning to barrier islands and flooded communities to assess the damage. And for some, rebuilding is just not an option. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE REVVING)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: John Day and his 17-year-old son Jake have loaded their Carolina Skiff with a case of water and other supplies at a marina just south of Inglewood, Fla.

JOHN DAY: We're heading to Little Gasparilla Island, where there is a tremendous amount of damage. We're hoping to clean up and recover our home.

JAKE DAY: I don't know. It's a lot. It's just a lot of work.

ELLIOTT: The 2 1/2-mile barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico has only ever been accessible by boat. It's just north of where Hurricane Ian made landfall and took a big hit.

JOHN DAY: It's the biggest storm I've ever seen - very sad. I think it's going to be years of recovery.

ELLIOTT: There's no power. Hundreds of trees are down. And every one of the 500 or so houses on the island suffered serious damage. Some structures were completely knocked off their pilings.

JOHN DAY: Right now it's just pure survival mode - bring groceries, bring gasoline and then have - if you're lucky enough to have a generator.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS FALLING)

ELLIOTT: Onshore, Day finds a major mess at his house. The siding has been ripped off one side, and the wall has completely detached.

JOHN DAY: There's a piece of my house over there in that neighbor's yard.

ELLIOTT: Inside, there's water damage. Black rings are forming around the light fixtures, and the drywall is soaked in one corner where the roof may have lifted.

JOHN DAY: This is the worst. I don't know what kind of mold it is, but it looks like black mold. And it's covering the entire bathroom ceiling.

ELLIOTT: Day, an IT consultant and father to three teenage boys, built his house on little Gasparilla Island in 2004, and it survived Hurricane Charley. He says he wasn't prepared for Ian's destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOLS BUZZING)

JOHN DAY: It's been mentally tough, actually, which is - I've never been challenged like this.

ELLIOTT: Recovering from Hurricane Ian is proving to be a challenge back on the mainland as well. Huge boat storage warehouses are crunched. Blue tarps cover leaky roofs. And business owners like Ryan Wall are taking stock of what they've got left.

RYAN WALL: It's pretty much a total loss right now.

ELLIOTT: Wall owns Ricaltini's restaurant and bar in Inglewood.

WALL: I ended up having to get rid of all my food, my freezer, my coolers. All those things are just - they're pretty much gone.

ELLIOTT: The outdoor patio is littered with big-screen TVs torn from their mounts and mangled metal awnings.

WALL: It just took that whole structure and ripped it off. Those are my hood vents for the kitchen. Those are all gone. This is my place over here. I live in this little apartment, and my parents ended up losing their entire house. So I let them move in there. And I'm staying with friends because they got three little dogs. And, I mean, it's just a total nightmare.

ELLIOTT: Wall is hooking up a generator to help with the cleanup and to try to access his payroll so his employees won't go without a check. It's a daunting task ahead, he says, but he hopes to get back in operation by December.

WALL: Yeah, so it's just a matter of getting blue tarps up and slowly put it back together.

ELLIOTT: For some families displaced by Hurricane Ian, putting it back together feels out of reach. In a neighborhood behind the restaurant, Brianna Eisemann is pulling stinky, drenched carpet from her mobile home as her 3-year-old daughter plays in the front yard.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF CARPET RIPPING)

ELLIOTT: The storm knocked out windows and ripped off the front porch, undermining the roof. It's not livable.

BRIANNA EISEMANN: It's still soaking wet. This rug and everything is still soaked. And it smells horrible in here. It's bad. It's gross.

ELLIOTT: For now, the 25-year-old mother of two is living in a temporary rental home owned by a family friend. But she's not sure what the future holds. Her partner is a mechanic, and they tend to get by paycheck to paycheck.

EISEMANN: So I just think that it's harder for us to put our lives back on track because we don't have the stability that a lot of people do. So it's hard. You can't just, you know, pick up and go find somewhere to call your residence or your home when you don't have the luxury to do that.

ELLIOTT: Eisemann says she's ready to leave her native state after Ian's destruction. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Inglewood, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.