After Ian: SW Florida struggles to pick up the pieces

Edge edit
'They’re alive. Nothing else matters.'

The Gulf of Mexico swallowed driftwood, stray shoes, split skim boards and the last vestige of Crystal Edge’s mother’s memory in the days following Hurricane Ian’s devastation.

The 28-year-old sailboat — a family heirloom — remained trapped below piled debris at a marina under the Fort Myers Beach bridge over the weekend. Edge, with her son, boyfriend and neighbor, shouted through the wreckage as they tried to free the boat.

Edge, 53, of Naples, knew the boat was unsalvageable the second she saw it. All she wanted, she said, was the mast. She plans to turn it into a flagpole. It would be the last piece of her late mother, who used the boat — named Restless — to travel through the Bahamas, Key West and Cuba.

“I feel like I’m losing her all over again,” she said. “That was such a big part of her, and all I kept saying to her yesterday was ‘I’m sorry, Mom, I’m so sorry.’ I wish I could have done more, but what can you do?”

The Category 4 hurricane passed through coastal islands before landfall in southwest Florida last week, killing dozens. President Joe Biden — who will visit the area Wednesday — declared it “an American crisis.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis described the storm, which reached sustained winds of more than 150 mph, as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the state. About 2.6 million people lost power, and the death toll continues to climb.

Storm surges leveled parts of the region, especially barrier islands. Sanibel Island — a small island of about 6,500 — and Captiva — its sister island — were severed from the mainland with the collapse of its causeway, the only way vehicles could go on or off the island. Matanzas Pass Bridge, which connects Fort Myers to its adjacent beach town, remained intact but only open to foot traffic for those who could prove residency.

Edge maneuvered through streets to the marina as soon as she could. After two days pacing the docks, trying to save the ship with a freshly torn knee injury, Edge was drained mentally, emotionally and physically.

Her sunburned skin and peeling lips — framed by a baseball cap and an American flag bandanna — peeked out under the midday sun.

“I should know better,” she said. “You’re supposed to put sunscreen on before you leave the damn house.”

While directing the boat’s rescue team, Edge’s attention occasionally diverted to dolphins surfacing through debris, gasoline and sewage.

They were probably headed somewhere the pollution was less potent, she said.

“Hopefully, they’ll find their way,” Edge said.

Above the ruins, dozens of Fort Myers Beach residents trekked the island’s 65-foot-tall bridge from sunrise to sunset. Some returned to pack up their homes; others walked into the flattened landscape for the first time since the evacuation.

“I would never stay on any barrier island,” Edge said. “It’s just common sense. In general, sailors, islanders, they’re stubborn. If they’ve got plenty of rum and beer, they’re good.”

Edge’s mom, Donna Nickelson, would have been one of those stubborn sailors, she said. Her boat was her life.

“That was her baby, that was her legacy, and it’s gone,” she said. “But at least she wasn’t here to witness this, because it would have just broke her. Or she would have died with it, and that would have been just as devastating.”

As Edge’s team sawed off the mast and secured it to a nearby, teetering dock, their counterparts tried to salvage their own boats further up the Caloosahatchee River.

The storm surge pushed various vessels along downtown Fort Myers’ shoreline inland, littering the landscape adjacent to U.S. Highway 41. Ten-foot chunks of floating docks were scattered among the riverside’s restaurants, bars and storefronts.

The storm’s selectiveness left some spared and others stripped of their belongings.

Bill Westberry, a Fort Myers Yacht Basin resident, now lives among debris — scraps of his neighbors’ sails, motors and pilings.

Westberry and about 50 of the basin’s residents tried to ride out the storm on their vessels. As water levels rose and wind gusts swirled, he said, they were forced to bolt to the second floor of an apartment complex across the street.

“We had people jumping off boats, swimming over here,” Westberry said. “We saw one guy over there in a sailboat. His boat was tied too tight. He swam out there and got on it about three o’clock in the afternoon. We thought he was a goner.”

Residents quickly rallied to return to some sense of normalcy, sorting through rubbish as sewage leaked out of manholes into the river. The smell of gasoline and oil tainted the air.

Westberry said he plans to ride out the aftermath on his boat; a generator will carry him through until the area restores power and water.

As an outspoken advocate for the liveaboards, he has criticized the city council’s decisions on behalf of the yacht basin.

More than 1,000 boats along the Caloosahatchee were destroyed, he estimated. He blamed the brunt of his basin’s damages on boats tied with poor-quality lines or ropes pulled too taut with no one apparently overseeing the storm preparations.

At Legacy Harbour Marina less than a mile down the river, a mound of 40-foot boats, splintered and washed onto land, became a spectacle for passersby.

One couple tried to hoist and lower a couch from their beached home as onlookers snapped pictures.

“Be respectful. This is our life,” the woman shouted at spectators. “Move along.”

About 20 miles down the river, Sanibel grappled with flooding from storm surges that nearly leveled the landscape.

Carolyn Bradbury Schwartz was among an estimated 200 residents who chose not to evacuate the island. After climbing atop a roof with three dogs in tow, spotty service prevented her from communicating with the mainland for nearly 24 hours.

Before the signal was lost, her daughter, 21-year-old Alexandra Iglesias, sent updates and directions as she watched broadcasts in Honolulu.

“It’s not like I could express my love for them,” she said. “I was just simply trying to help them and let them know what was going on. It wasn’t like I even had time to say goodbyes, if that was the case.”

While her mom was eventually rescued, officials prioritized the injured and elderly, Iglesias said. Only one area on the east end provided shuttles off the island, and the west half remained largely inaccessible. Captiva, she said, looked underwater.

DeSantis is requesting full federal reimbursement up front for 60 days but has been criticized for his 2013 vote against aid for New York after Hurricane Sandy’s landfall.

“You’re looking at a storm that’s changed the character of a significant part of our state,” he said during a briefing last week in Tallahassee. “This is going to require not just the emergency response now, and the days or weeks ahead; I mean, this is going to require years of effort, to be able to rebuild, to come back.”

John Wellman agreed the community would be the area’s most reliable lifeline. Everyday people were winning out over organized relief efforts.

“You got to help out where you can, you know. Once I get mine done, then I’ll help anybody that needs it,” Wellman said. “Pay that forward. Help your neighbor.”

A day before the hurricane fell over Fort Myers, Wellman packed his wife, two daughters and three chihuahuas into their Fiat and drove across Alligator Alley to Delray Beach.

He was sure he would arrive back home to see the already battered tree in his front yard toppled onto his roof; the poinciana took on a permanently slanted position after Hurricane Irma beat it down in 2017, Wellman said.

It’s still standing but in worse shape — barren and even more crooked.

“It’s going to grow back and be pretty again, but I’m cutting it down,” he said, laughing. “It ain’t getting a third chance.”

Wellman smiled as his family cleaned inside, carrying out soaked furniture and wringing out soiled clothes.

“They’re alive,” he said. “Nothing else matters.”

Julia Coin and Jack Prator reporting; produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.

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