FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One year after riding out Hurricane Ian, I returned to Ft. Myers to see how the community was recovering.
There are significant signs of progress, but there are also a lot of uncertainties. Some people decided to ride out the hurricane, but the king tides and torrential rain proved more intense than some Floridians anticipated.
I met a woman named Wanda Schnitzler. She decided to ride out the hurricane. When I asked her why she chose to stay as opposed to leave, she told me she didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was.
"Because we've had hurricanes, but we've never had water like this," she told me.
She shared a cell phone video her son captured as the water rushed into her home. She said eventually, everything started floating in the house.
The refrigerator turned over, and her son's motorcycle went through the door. She told me her husband passed away and she had his ashes in her home.
She says she was grateful she put them on the highest shelf so the ashes remained dry. I asked her if there was a point where she was concerned whether she would survive.
"You have to do what you have to do to stay alive, and you're waiting for things to happen," she said. "For the water to go down."
Several of her neighbors who rode out the storm were not so lucky. Nine of them died. "I know one woman fell in this black slimy mud, whatever is on the floors. She fell and broke both hips and died," Schnitzler told me.
Wanda Schnitzler said she feels very fortunate because her son is a carpenter, and he was able to do a lot of the work to get her home back in livable condition. She says many of her neighbors are still struggling to get help to rebuild.
My photographer Leon Gonzalez and I also met a couple named Cynthia and James Farrell.
They relocated to Florida from California one month prior to the hurricane. All of their belongings arrived two weeks before the storm. Ian's wrath destroyed their new home and most of their material possessions. They told me they stayed in their home as the water came in.
They said the following day when the water started to recede what they saw was overwhelming.
"You just wanted to cry. It was very emotional for me. The devastation was a lot. I mean, it was more than we thought would happen. The winds weren't as bad for us as the water. The water did most of the damage. We just moved back into our home a month ago," Cynthia Farrell said.
The couple had been living in a trailer for nearly a year while they were repairing their home. "You know, living in a trailer for a year is not an easy thing to do for anyone, but we felt grateful that we had it because there was a lot of people that didn't," the couple told me.
As I've seen covering disasters as a journalist for years, the darkest times often bring out the best in people.
Like many others we met, the Farrells have devoted their energy to helping the community rebuild. They held a fundraiser for forklifts so people could get food up ramps and volunteered with various food banks.
They joined the chamber and created a pamphlet and internet link listing all the reopened places to shop and eat. I asked the couple how we could help the community rebuild. They told me the best thing we could do was visit the area, eat at the restaurants and shop at the local stores.
We also met Karen Broderick Grabhorn and her husband Lew.
The Massachusetts couple spent the last two years renovating their retirement home only to see Ian wash it away. They weren't there for the storm. They evacuated. Now they find themselves renovating all over again.
"I was like, oh my. What are you supposed to do? Just tear the whole thing down? Or doing what we decided to do was restore it. It was devastating. All of my husband's time and effort that he put into just remodeling over the last two years, just gone," said Broderick Grabhorn. She also told me during this difficult time they have made many new friendships.
"You go up to the pool and figure out what has worked and you give each other names and contractors if you have an issue going on. Even when you go to the bars and have a drink. Everyone has a story. They tell you where they were and where they are now. It's pretty interesting," she said.
Near Ft. Myers Beach, we were taken aback by seeing a big dilapidated property. Once we were inside, you could see exposed wires, no walls and there was a powerful stench. I discovered this shell of a building was once a church for the community called Chapel By the Sea Presbyterian Church. I contacted the co-chair of the church's property and facilities committee, Tom Means. He couldn't meet in person but spoke with me over the phone. Means said he was horrified when he first saw the church.
"We were totally unprepared for the total devastation of the building," he told me. Means said maintaining membership has been a challenge. "Our report to the Presbytery prior to the storm had listed us in the range of 160, and I'm not sure exactly on those numbers, but 162 members.
The report as of yesterday that we were somewhere between 84 and 90 members," he said.
Means told me many of the members are holding on to faith that this church will have a future and better days ahead.
Perhaps the most visual sign foreshadowing brighter times for the community is a vibrantly painted elevator shaft on Ft. Myers Beach painted by local artists in bright tropical colors. It has become a symbol of the community's resilience.
I met Christopher Primeau, who told me his father left him and his sister in charge of their family property. He told me it's a legacy that is very important to them. He said after repairing the last remaining piece of the structure, they wanted to turn it into something beautiful.
"And the idea came to put murals on it. And so we put a plea out for some artists. Artists clambered for the opportunity and it really became this tremendous community symbol of hope and progress," said Primeau.
Primeau said he knows this will be a long recovery process, but he remains optimistic and has faith in the resilience of this community.
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