At ground zero, with the victims of 'Ian': “It will take us years to recover from the hurricane” | International

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On Wednesday at five in the afternoon, when the tide began to rise dangerously, the young Stefani Milz made a decision that saved her life. "I took my two dogs and crossed the street," she recalls. She did it by swimming. She forced the gate of the house of her neighbors, who are on vacation in Germany, and she ran to the second floor. There he still sleeps three nights later.

He couldn't have known it then, and he acted without thinking, but in his single-story home outside Fort Myers, ground zero of the devastation wrought by the latest hurricane to hit the southwestern Florida panhandle, the water rose high enough as to have killed her. She now strives to rescue the little that the mud did not leave useless. Most of her furniture was in the garden this Saturday morning, drying in the sun and heat (up to 30 degrees) of early October, as if ready for one of those weekend sales. “Much is said about [el huracán] Michael these days,” says Milz. "But Ian It has been much worse than that. This is like the catrina”.

The street where he lives with his family seems to have been, until the storm passed, the perfect place to retire. Now, in some of its sections, the mud reaches the ankles and the uprooted trees block the passage. It's in an affluent neighborhood in the heart of Lee County, the area that has borne the brunt of the fury of a hurricane that made landfall near here a couple of hours before Milz went for a swim. Classified as category four and with winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour, Ian He demonstrated his extraordinary skills for destruction especially in this area. Some 35 people have died in this county alone, according to calculations that Sheriff Carmine Marceno, unofficial spokesman for the tragedy, released this Saturday on social networks. This data raises to more than 60 the provisional number of fatalities that the wind and water have left behind in Florida.

Marceno has jurisdiction over Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and the islands of Pine and Sanibel, all of them place names that have become symbols of the latest meteorological catastrophe to hit the United States. A catastrophe that, experts say, has been aggravated by climate change: global warming allows these seasonal storms to assemble more quickly and, in a terrible paradox, later move with a parsimony that makes them wallow in destruction.

The destruction caused by Hurricane 'Ian' in the only access to the Matlacha neighborhood and Pine Island, this Friday in Florida.KEVIN FOGARTY (REUTERS)

This Saturday morning, the bridge that connects the mainland with Sanibel Island was still closed (in which it has become one of the stamps that Ian has given to posterity). So access to this prosperous urban core (with a per capita income of $90,000 a year and 97% white, according to the last census) was only possible by boat. Nor did they let Fort Myers Beach pass, the other epicenter of the devastation. The road is still there, but the agents prevented access on foot to those who could not prove their proximity or who came to lend a hand identified as rescue professionals. "It seems to me that the prohibition to pass will be maintained for several weeks," explained one of those agents.

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From the marina on the other side of the Caloosahatchee River, you can see the streets swept by the waters. Jay Ursoleo was born in one of them 64 years ago. And no, he had never seen anything like it. “It will take several years to recover from Ian”, he said, while working to shore up a port structure ravaged by the wind and the storm surge that the storm threw on dry land. The day after the storm, Ursoleo walked around Fort Myers Beach and says he saw "corpses floating in the streets."

This is the area where the most Dantesque scenes await: images that are hard to forget, such as the structure of a repair dock for large boats folded in on itself like cigarette paper, yachts almost 20 meters long thrown half a kilometer from where they were anchored, houses literally upside down, a boat next to a gas pump, as if about to refuel, and memories of a lifetime mixed with the mud and dead fish in the gutters. Greg Charters, "captain" of one of those yachts, laments having lost his livelihood (he worked as a guide for fishing trips for tourists), while he watches in disbelief as Crackerjackwhich is the name of his boat, ended up on top of an SUV, "which, apparently, belongs to some reporters."

A little further, Joanne Semmer explains with the pride of the poor that this part of Fort Myers Beach is that of "the workers" and the one that is closed to the passage "that of the rich". “For once they got the worst of it,” she adds. The day of the storm she was at her house, located a few streets further east. "Now it's a hole with two meters of water and mud," she says. When she saw that things were getting ugly, she went to where her brother lives. It turned out to be a good idea: the tide also did its thing there (Semmer points out how far it reached, about four meters high), but, again, the secret was to have a second floor in the house where to avoid drowning.

Semmer agrees with Ursoleo, and with the twenty residents of the area consulted for this chronicle: they all answered the same (“several years”) to the question of how long they thought it would take for Lee County to recover.

Many of them also agreed on their decision to stay at home, so close to the coast, despite the imminence of the hurricane. It is true that during the previous days the meteorologists predicted that Ian It would make landfall in the Tampa area, about 200 kilometers to the north, where this weekend they certainly breathe a sigh of relief. The intimacy with the natural catastrophes that the inhabitants of this corner of the world develop also contributed. "My husband and I always choose to stay in the middle of the storm," Anne Dalton, who has lived in downtown Fort Myers for 32 years, about 15 kilometers from the most affected part, had explained first thing in the morning. “We've experienced a few of these, although the others weren't as harsh. You can go to a hotel, or with some friends, but then you will spend a few days with anxiety attacks because you do not know what is happening with your things. Her house is "reasonably okay" except for the "musty smell." The same smell that, mixed with the smell of rotten fish and diesel, has taken over the entire county (an area that sounds like two things: the overflight of emergency helicopters and the chainsaws of the neighbors who work to clear the logs crossed paths).

Not everyone had the luck of Dalton, a professional in "judicial mediation in real estate insurance issues", who now, it is widely feared, will have "more work than ever". A member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who preferred not to give his name, explained that "they still cannot be sure" that there are no more people trapped in houses, dead or alive. , almost 72 hours after the worst was over.

Curtis Drafton, who arrived a day before the tragedy at the head of his private rescue team, "formed by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan", said that he has rescued a few neighbors in the nearby town of Iona, converted, still this Saturday, in a sinister little Venice. "The water is so high that SUVs can't get through," he added, "so people have to be shouldered."

Boats stranded after being dragged by the hurricane in Fort Myers Beach (Florida).
Boats stranded after being dragged by the hurricane in Fort Myers Beach (Florida).Rebecca Blackwell (AP)

Drafton sleeps every night in his truck on the top floor of a downtown Fort Myers parking lot, where he survived the storm. The car park is on the main street of this city of just over 60,000 inhabitants, where normality is gradually opening up again. Here, the light never went out (Ian left 2.6 million users statewide without electricity), although that also had its disadvantages, as the residents of an apartment building in front of the port know, which, according to its administrator, they had to add to the calamity of the hurricane a fire on one of the floors caused by a short circuit.

There are already a couple of downtown Fort Myers restaurants up and running. Some gas stations in the area have returned to work (although the queues are miles long), a DIY store is supplying and refilling propane tanks, and the local radio nonstop tips on where to restock or grab a hot meal. For the latter, there are, in a parking lot of an unnamed shopping center, the vans of World Central Kitchen, the NGO of Spanish chef José Andrés, who deployed, as usual, immediately.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis wanted to contribute to that image of normality by collaborating in the morning at a waffle restaurant in Punta Gorda, another of the catastrophe's place names. DeSantis is one of the politicians of the moment in the United States, called, they say, to be the alternative to Donald Trump in 2024. And at the moment he is coming out of this crisis reinforced, by adding a profile of a responsible and moderate leader, willing to collaborate with the White House of his archenemy Joe Biden (although in the past he criticized helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York), his strident facet as a scourge of progressivism and tireless cultural warrior on issues such as medical care for transgender youth or the discussion in schools about sexual orientation.

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