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After Ian demolished their home, a Florida couple wonders where to go

Jim and Susan Helton sit int he back of a car outside a hotel in Fort Myers, Fla. Their home in Fort Myers beach was destroyed by Hurricane Ian.
Carlos Osorio for NPR
Jim and Susan Helton sit int he back of a car outside a hotel in Fort Myers, Fla. Their home in Fort Myers beach was destroyed by Hurricane Ian.

FORT MYERS, FLA. — No place in Florida seemed to have suffered more damage from Hurricane Ian than the town of Fort Myers Beach, located on Estero Island along the state's southwest coast.

One official who flew over the community estimates that 80% of the structures will have to be rebuilt. Ian battered the barrier island with a 12-foot storm surge and winds near 150 miles per hour. The bridge to the island was damaged in the storm and has now been closed. Residents who evacuated and were briefly able to return to their homes are stunned by how little remains.

Susan and Jim Helton are in Fort Myers now, at a hotel where there's no power or water. But they feel lucky they got a room here after their home was demolished in the storm. It was Ian's storm surge that did the damage.

That, Jim Helton says, and the boat he found in the middle of his house. It demolished his sunroom and opened the house to the elements. He has no idea whose boat it is or what it will take to remove it and the rest of the rubble that used to be his home. "It will probably be there for six months or a year," he says, "because so many places have been hit."

The Heltons' home is on the back bay in Fort Myers Beach, part of a boating community that's now gone. They left the island before the storm and stayed with a friend. The next day, Jim returned, fearful about what he might find.

He tried to stay positive, but when he saw the boat inside his house and the damage done by the surge, his heart sank. "It was hard to get in there because the couches and everything floated up, all mixed together."

"And the washing machine," his wife Susan adds. The surge picked up everything in the house: furniture, heavy appliances, a golf cart, "and books," Susan says, "all my books."

Jim Helton has been in Florida more than 40 years. He built a successful business on Captiva, another nearby island devastated by the storm. He's 84, long since retired and now is not sure what to do next. Like the house, all the couple's plans were scrambled and destroyed by the hurricane.

"We were going to sell [the house] this winter," Jim says. "I got over there today and there was a note by the coffee machine, 'Call the sales lady.' And that hurt." It's a blow he's not sure he can recover from. "I'm hanging in," he says. "I'm fighting depression. I could cry right now but I'm not."

Destroyed houses and buildings are visible in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.
/ Tom James for WGCU/NPR
Tom James for WGCU/NPR
Destroyed houses and buildings are visible in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.

Tens of thousands in Florida were displaced

Throughout southwest Florida, there are tens of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Ian with stories like the Heltons. In some communities, homes spared in the storm are now flooding from rain-swollen rivers. Some 10,000 people remain in shelters.

A catastrophe modeling company estimates that insured losses will be over $60 billion and total damages may exceed $100 billion. If those numbers hold up, Ian would be the fourth costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

On Fort Myers Beach, Jim believes it will be at least a decade before the island community is rebuilt. He doesn't expect to be around to see it. In the meantime, he and his wife are thinking about Texas. "I have a son over there," he says, "and he doesn't like Florida." Susan says, "Neither do I much now today."

Susan Helton has experienced trauma before. She's a former New Yorker and was in Manhattan on 9/11. "I thought, you gave me one disaster, don't push it. But guess what, a higher power came in and said, 'Go ahead, press that button one more time and see if she can take it.' "

Jim says he's also thought about God, the challenge he's been given and whether he's still up to it. "I've had a good life and he threw me this curve. I'm alive," Jim says, and then laughs. "We'll see what happens tomorrow. Because I'm just about out of gas."

The Heltons say they're staying in Florida just until they are able to make the necessary connections with FEMA. They say they'll dispose of a property they loved, but which, like so much else on Fort Myers Beach, is now gone forever.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.