‘It’s a nightmare, but we’re alive’: After Hurricane Ian, Fort Myers residents mourn low-lying neighborhoods

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Stuck in his home in a flooded neighborhood, Charlie Saah felt dizzy Friday morning and called 911.

It was his fourth day without kidney dialysis treatment.

Dialysis centers were closed. Saah’s generator no longer worked. The streets of his South Fort Myers, Florida neighborhood were inundated with water, doorsteps flush to the waterline. Hurricane Ian brought 16 inches of water into Saah’s garage.

“Everything’s ruined, the car batteries are dead,” Saah said after rescue men drove him to an ambulance through the waterlogged street on a military jeep. “I’m happy to be out.”

Hurricane Ian’s torrential storm surge and rain left behind a trail of destruction. The contrast between neighborhoods was stark: Across the street from Saah’s flooded neighborhood of colorful cottages stood a yacht and country club, and down the block, tall sturdy villas. Farther down, mobile homes were torn apart in trailer home parks and RV resorts.

On San Carlos Island, five miles south before the bridge to decimated Fort Myers Beach, boats were washed ashore to small single-story shopping plazas, warehouses and mobile home neighborhoods, crushing trucks and cars beneath them surrounded by tangles of power lines.

A boat washed up ashore during Hurricane Ian in Ft. Myers, Florida.

San Carlos Isle Maritime Park, a neighborhood of trailer homes and apartments tucked on the coast by a shrimp market and marinas, housed working-class residents – handymen, restaurant and fisheries workers. Many rode out the storm in their homes.

Fort Myers resident Charlie Saah, a dialysis patient, is pictured Friday morning, Sept. 30, after being stuck in his home. Saah couldn't receive treatments for four days as floodwater inundated his neighborhood after Category 4 Hurricane Ian churned into Southwest Florida Wednesday.

Local motorcycle builder, Joe Fernandez, works in the neighborhood. He stayed so he could help his neighbors, some of whom are immigrants who he said were afraid to shelter elsewhere or seek help.

“I’m young. I can swim. I can stay behind,” he said. “There’s a lot of old people over here that were living the actual American dream… A lot of these people, they couldn’t go nowhere, because they didn’t have nobody.”

Joe Fernandez, 31, is pictured in his motorcycle workshop, filled with water after Hurricane Ian.

The Cape Coral-Ft. Myers metropolitan area ranks No. 14 nationwide in income inequality, according to a Economic Policy Institute Report. Florida ranks No. 2 of 50 states.

On Friday morning, the 31-year-old was grilling salmon fillets for residents as his four pitbulls perused the disfigured landscape.

“This isn’t fair. This is bad. It’s really bad. Come on, I mean – it’s been almost three days. Nobody has come checked on these people,” he said. “These people ate yesterday because we cooked. These people drank water yesterday because we brought water.”

The water had risen up to the second floor of Fernandez’s neighborhood shop. He said 14 and 15 of his neighbors are now homeless.

“I have some stuff I can share with all these people,” he said. “Even though I lost everything too. But somebody needs to help them. Somebody.”

Carlos Hernandez shows the damage Friday morning, Sept. 30, in his San Carlos Isle Maritime Park neighborhood after Hurricane Ian.

Fernandez said there are still many missing from the neighborhood. Carlos Hernandez, a resident, hasn’t heard from his friend Lionel, a restaurant worker, for days. No one has.

“I hope he is fine,” said Hernandez, who sheltered with more than a dozen others on the second floor of his now-muddied apartment building.

As the winds howled, he broke open a window downstairs to save a neighbor who he heard yelling. The man was clinging to a pillow, floating inside his apartment. Hernandez watched as another neighbor almost drowned. She’s now in the hospital, he said.

Hernandez has lived here for two decades. The Times Square restaurant where he works over the bridge in Fort Myers Beach is leveled.

A neighborhood off McGregor Boulevard in south Fort Myers, Florida, is flooded on Friday morning after Category 4 Hurricane Ian churned into the area on Wednesday.

“This is like catastrophic,” he said. “First time on the bridge, when I just see the beach and Times Square, it made me cry.”

In another mobile home neighborhood about a mile north, there were few generators and loud shrieks of mangled metal could be heard as residents pulled debris through yards.

Bob Palmer, 83, has been living in his trailer since 1994.  Palmer, a former hydraulic repairman in the U.S. Air Force, rode out the storm on his bed. The four inches of rain in his home had receded, and the air was damp. His neighborhood brought him water and checked on him.

Bob Palmer, 83, poses for a photo in his Ft. Myers, Florida, mobile home, two days after Hurricane Ian.

“I can’t do much anymore. That aggravates me,” he said. “This campground is like a family. I’m very blessed to have good friends.”

Meanwhile, half of Sharon Popham’s trailer home was shattered. The 72-year-old and her niece tried salvaging what they could Friday morning, tiptoeing around broken glass. Popham worries about displacing her disabled son.

She doesn’t have a job to go back to – the sandal factory she worked at was on Fort Myers Beach. “There’s nothing there (now),” she said. “I’m trying to save as much as I can … I’ve already applied to FEMA.”

At MaryAnn Galante’s mobile home, windows were blown out, “but we’re all alive,” she said. She and her daughter were walking to a food relief.

“It’s very, very scary looking down roads and all you see is water, hanging streetlights,” she said. “It’s a nightmare, but we’re alive.”

Though water damaged the inside of her mobile home, she’s thankful it still stands. “I’ll have to wash eventually, if we ever get plumbing and stuff to clean,” she said.

Galante and her husband, a mechanic, and her daughter, who works at WalMart, moved here a year ago. She’s experienced hurricanes before. But this one, she said, was different.

“I feel like I’m in a war zone,” she said. “This is just horrific.”

Fort Myers resident Sharon Popham assesses damage from Hurricane Ian at her mobile home on Friday morning.

Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.

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