Cape Coral residents worn out from Ian’s destruction, complain of lack of disaster relief

Cape Coral saw horrific damage from Hurricane Ian. Now residents have to deal…

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Eight people, two dogs and four cats crammed into Steve Zielinksi’s 900-square-foot home Tuesday evening, bracing for whatever havoc Hurricane Ian would wreak in Cape Coral — Southwest Florida’s self-proclaimed “waterfront wonderland” — not able to predict that the city’s cheerful motto would become grim irony.

Hurricane Ian collapsed the Sanibel Causeway, obliterated Fort Myers Beach, damaged the bridges to Matlacha and Pine Island and forced at least 10 feet of water onto Cape Coral’s inland neighborhoods, as well as recorded wind gusts reaching 140 miles per hour.

At Ballynahinch Condominiums, off of SW 47th Terrance, residents watched in horror as floodwaters inched closer to their front steps, describing Ian as a “never-ending nightmare.” 

“I’ve been in Cape Coral my entire life,” one neighbor said. “This is the last storm I will ever ride out.”

Zielinkski and his neighbors were spotted Friday afternoon piling scraps of twisted metal and broken branches to clear out the condo’s carports, bending and stepping up to avoid downed power lines. 

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“I’ve been through hurricanes before in the northeast,” Zielinkski said, who moved to Cape Coral from Philadelphia three summers ago, and reportedly survived Hurricane Isabel from his and his wife’s boat. “This one was pretty rough.” 

At Pelican, newcomers Robert Reecer and his wife rode out Ian at home. In the middle of the night, Reecer discovered his lanai was flooded and seeping water into his house. 

Immediately, Reecer grabbed beach towels to stuff them into the bottom of every door. He grabbed clothes, blankets, water and an axe to rush them into the house’s attic, all while water whirled around his ankles. 

“Being in the attic hearing wind blowing 120 miles per hour and trying to get in contact with family I thought I may never see again was the worst part,” he said. “I just knew we may not make it.” 

Reecer did the one thing in his power as Ian roared on: he started praying. 

A boomtown forced offline

The nearly category 4 storm wiped out Cape Coral’s power; 99% of the city was out of power, according to the city of Cape Coral’s Facebook page. 

Every single traffic light was out, forcing drivers to use every intersection as a four-way stop. Some larger intersections, like Pine Island Road/Del Prado Boulevard, have Cape Coral Police and members of the National Guard directing traffic.  

Kyra Johnson, a Cape Coral native said her family lost communication for days when Hurricane Ian crushed the city’s cell signal. 

“It was terrifying watching Ian’s wrath from the outside,” Johnson said, who now lives in Miami.  “My family had to hold our back doors closed for 13 hours to prevent the winds from ripping them open and destroying the inside of our home.” 

Images of a devastated SWFL inundated Johnson’s social media, bringing her to tears as she scrolled in horror unable to recognize the places she grew up loving. 

“Not knowing if my family and friends were safe was the worst part,” she said.

Officials say LCEC, the city’s energy provider, has deployed 100 crews devoted to restoring power beginning Saturday. October 1. Starting that Saturday, electric lines will again be energized. Officials caution residents to assume every down power line is live and stay away.

A handful of gas stations were open and functioning, but all of them with at least hour-long wait times.

Large swaths of twisted metal laid pathetically on the ground, boats were found beached on grassy medians, rooftops were stripped, and residents were out and about, lining up at one of the few open grocery stores or assessing damage. 

Jaycee Park and the Cape Coral Yacht Club Beach were closed off to the public, barred by yellow caution tape and parked law enforcement chastising onlookers who tried to enter. 

“Stop walking forward. Stay on the roadway,” boomed an officer from his vehicle. 

Officially, there are no numbers for just how high floodwaters or storm surge was Wednesday and Thursday, according to Christianne Pearce, a meteorologist for National Weather Service – Ruskin. 

“We don’t know for sure yet because we are just getting our surveys from our storm unit this week,” Pearce said. “They measure the water lines and everything, so at this time we don’t have numbers.” 

However, Pearce confirmed that Cape Coral saw 6-8 inches of rainfall during Ian’s unwelcome visit. 

‘We have nothing

Some Cape Coral residents express frustration about what they say is a lack of disaster relief for their city. 

“I feel like Cape Coral is not getting the necessary attention to the needs of its citizens,” Jenny Morales, who lives in Coral Lakes, said in a Facebook message. “The services that were promised have been sent to other places.” 

“We have heard that the infrastructure has been destroyed, and while that may be true … does it make sense that when I drove down my end of Del Prado I only saw 2 electric trucks?” Morales wrote. 

Morales compared Ian’s disaster relief to a previous experience: her and husband surviving a direct hit by a tornado that ripped through East Haven, Connecticut in August 2020. She said that despite the tornado demolishing “whole neighborhoods,” her house had power within five days and she was constantly getting updates on community resources. 

“There is something not right about where the assistance is going and who is benefitting from all the aid that has been pouring in,” Morales said. “And the only answers that are given are non-answers.” 

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Heather Walsh shared her sentiment. 

“We need answers more than our stories shared. Where is FEMA? We got ignored during Irma too but we have far worse damage this time around and we are without water,” she said. 

“I saw a post from Sarasota County and they have tons of distribution sites set up. We have nothing.”

Red helicopters and a National Guard chinook helicopter can be spotted whizzing over the Caloosahatchee River. Several rescue efforts are ongoing for the barrier islands and Fort Myers beach — including ones led by volunteers.

Kyra Johnson also decided to take matters into her own hands after hearing about her family’s struggles to find basic supplies such as food, water and hygienic care. 

“Obviously the (disaster) response will be longer with the devastation that occurred… but folks have been driving to cities on the other coast in order to access these resources,” she said.

Johnson turned to her social media to collect donations, asking followers to help her raise money to purchase water, tarps for damaged roofs, pet supplies and hygiene supplies. 

“So far, in less than 48 hours, we have raised almost $1,000 and collected lots of water, non-perishable food, and batteries from Miami locals,” Johnson said. “The support has been tremendous across the country.” 

At Ballynahinch Condominiums, Zielinkski and his neighbors don’t feel a strain of resources, but they felt well-stocked and prepared prior to Ian’s arrival. 

“I will say this though,” Zielinkski said. “Next time, if it’s going to be a 2 or more — we’re out of here.”

Stefania Lugli covers a little of everything for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota. You can contact her at slugli@heraldtribune.com or dm her on Twitter at @steflugli.

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