In the grocery store, I notice that there is little eye contact, few greetings, and not a lot of friendliness – people are intent on their mission, growling or swearing here and there when the shelves are empty. I don’t see much meanness in the neighborhood as the days move along, the clean-up taking shape, hammers beating their rhythms as roofs go on, and siding is secured. People have a little time to relax, be cordial, say hello, and walk their dogs. Still a lot of grousing -- about this guy who does nothing and that guy who hasn’t even started fixing his house. Many are not content yet to mind their own business. One yard still has a political sign from November beginning to look like it’s hiding in the flower bed – I live in Florida, where plants grow like weeds after a blow.
We are only five months away from Hurricane Ian’s U.S. landfall on Sept. 23, 2022. Ian was the fifth strongest hurricane to hit Florida in recorded history, and he wreaked havoc on our southwest coastal area for several hours until he whirled north insistent on fresh spots to destroy. Ian has the distinction of costing the most to towns and cities, homeowners and businesses since the beginning of tracking hurricanes in Florida a century ago.
Where I live, 35 miles inland from Ian’s landfall, we have cleaned up pretty well after the big brat and his tizzy fit, but the coastal town of Ft. Myers and her barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva looks like Ukraine: miles of warscape—dead trees and hillocks of rubbish that once were resorts, restaurants, condos and homes. The storm surge was greatest at landfall, of course, up to 16 feet, as strong as a high-speed train. Ponds of dirty water can’t even dry up yet, the soil is saturated.
People came together and helped one another, made piles of oak trees downed, palms lying like matchsticks in a row; front loaders and draglines tossed shreds of homes and their contents into increasingly high piles along curbs. The established deaths reached 149, and it is estimated there will be $30 to $60 billion worth of damage in southwest Florida alone.
A Lee County man used suicide as a way out when he realized his house was destroyed beyond recognition. Mean signs went up: “You loot, we shoot” they read. And at night, vigilantes parked their big trucks by entryways into housing developments and with long guns spent the night waiting for thieves.
Most people concentrated on their own ruins, and sometimes on their neighbors. A volunteer group aided the widows and old men in their clean-up and sadness. Many older guys were surly, however, some were nearly broken in spirit as they slowly gathered rubbish -- aluminum, wooden doors, glass, concrete, appliances, furniture, tree branches and bushes, chunks of cement – by hand and tossed it on the correct piles for eventual pickup. One woman collected hundreds of nails on the streets alone. That was from the first day. It was around the same count the second day, lesser as the week went on. We still find them in the grass and will be doing so for years.
Front yards began looking like giant yard sales of worthlessness. Owners stood bewildered before their oak trees literally wrapped in aluminum off their roofs. How were they to get it out of and off of their tree? Would the tree have to go? One neighbor took offense to a roof off the neighbor’s house laid out flat in her driveway as if placed there on purpose. She couldn’t believe that it could be a lie that neatly without a human having done it. Trauma causes nutty behavior, as well as withdrawal and tears.
Blue tarps bloomed on every other roof, protecting the innards from rain and critters. Chainsaws and generators hummed and buzzed, and the sun beat down. Surely these old folks who retired to Florida to escape shoveling snow needed to go inside and rest before they had heart attacks; of course, there was no electricity yet, so there would be no air conditioning to dry up their sweat, no shower to ease the sunburn. Community swimming pools were opened and filthy; people stepped into the tea-brown water among unidentifiable pieces of floating junk. Uncaring, just dying to cool their bodies and minds, they waded in with their shoes on.
I saw only one sad incident, as it took place: a young Jamaican whom I had met and befriended, hired by owners to help them, drove their truck through the partially cleared streets and stopped here and there to pick up what he could handle, toss it in his truck and drive to the next place; he was helping get junk to the communal area of piles for those who didn’t have big enough vehicles or the strength themselves to handle most of it. As he started on another pile, the house owner raged out of his front door, yelling, “N….., Get the f..k away from my stuff! How dare you steal my gutters!”
My island friend, said, “Hey, man, I’m just helping you.”
The man used the epithet again and screamed, “Get away from me!”
My friend dropped his load, jumped in his truck and came to my place. He needed kindness and a beer and to tell his story: “When this happens in Jamaica, we all help everybody. We sing” Elbows on knees, head down.
“Never seen anything like this.”
He was quiet into the evening and did not help again until it was time for him to leave for home.