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

 Hurricane debris is scattered throughout a Tamiami Village mobile home community on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in North Fort Myers, Fla.
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Hurricane debris is scattered throughout a Tamiami Village mobile home community on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in North Fort Myers, Fla.

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, in Southwest Florida. 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.

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 large 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.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.