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Cape Coral Living Magazine

Disaster Leads to Determination | Resilience Will Drive Us To A Brighter Future

There’s an old axiom about what to do when you’re faced with a potentially devastating event—it says people are motivated to either “fight or flight.”

When Hurricane Irma threatened Southwest Florida, and particularly the barrier island we call home, I feared the worst. The forecast of a huge storm surge and wild winds got my full attention, and a mandatory evacuation order is not something to ignore.

Irma affected so many people in our area, some dramatically more than others. But from the coast to the eastern parts of our region, there was an instant reaction from our community to get out there and give help to those in need. The storm passed and it was time for action, for people to reach out to assist when normally they might not.

We Southwest Floridians are defining our fight to return to pre-Irma conditions.

Cutting and hauling huge trees from a neighbor’s property, dragging debris off the road, tearing down a damaged fence, and taking cold water and warm food to those who needed it—all of these things and more happened immediately. The residents, and the few visitors who were here, got over the shock and became determined to rise above the disaster, and to help their neighbors rise above it, as well.

I am finding that just following the daily routine—same as before Irma—I now approach with a renewed appreciation. The people who live here and their shared passion for paradise fuel my optimism. Their love of Southwest Florida has led to a huge outpouring of good deeds, and our resilience will drive us beyond disaster to a brighter future. For sure, Southwest Florida continues to be home for many of us and will be the preferred destination for our visitors.

We all learned a lot! I think the inner determination we have discovered is promising glimmer of hope for all of us going forward into this most wonderful season of the year.

I am thankful to everyone, to you as our loyal subscriber, our advertisers and to our wonderful TOTI team and associates.

Below you'll find the stories of the people who live here and their shared passion for paradise. If you'd like to share your story of determination and resiliency please submit your story here.

Happy holidays and a healthy prosperous New Year!

Daniela E. Jaeger
Group Publisher, TOTI Media

Bailey's General Store on Sanibel Island

When Richard and Mead Johnson, owners of Bailey's General Store on Sanibel Island, saw the news that Hurricane Irma would be making landfall in Southwest Florida and was approaching with Category 5 winds, they began preparations as early as Labor Day.

Richard said they had a plan in place for occasions like this to make sure everybody would be safe.

Sanibel was under mandatory evacuation due to the potential storm surge that could flood the island; however, Richard and his family stayed. Although they did have plans to leave, by the time they wrapped everything in the store, it was too late.

Thankfully, the surge and the winds weren’t as bad as they were first predicted, so the Johnsons stayed safe; however, walking outside on Monday morning seemed surreal.

“There was stuff everywhere,” Mead remembers. “The roads were completely trashed with vegetation; trees had been uprooted. You can’t really describe it. You couldn’t drive down the road. It’s like a bomb had gone off.”

The couple’s daughter Calli Johnson recalls, “When you walk outside you expect so much to be going on. Cars should be driving by, people should be biking, and when that’s not happening, it’s really strange, it’s really surreal.”

Despite the destruction, the Johnsons decided to open the store as soon as they could on Monday and help the community recover. They provided meals for the first responders, took care of the JetBlue Care Team, and prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for those who came by—and the list just goes on and on.

“One of the things that I recognized after Charley and Irma is that people are looking for something comfortable, a sense of normalcy,” Richard says. “And we feel very proud of the sense of normalcy that we were able to provide for the community.”

Elaborating, he continues, “We had people pulling up on Monday afternoon saying, ‘We knew you’d be open; thank you for being here.’ It just gave a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that we can serve that purpose in our community. And it’ll happen again—and we’ll be there.”

The Story of Alden “Buzz” Osterbusch and his Wife Nancy, Fort Myers

The retired couple evacuated their Fort Myers home and couldn’t return until 15 days after the hurricane passed. Buzz Osterbusch, a retired United Airlines pilot of 35 years, had a medical emergency that required them to ride out Hurricane Irma at the Gulf Coast Hospital before going back to the Crowne Plaza hotel. Despite the lack of electricity at the hotel, Nancy said she was thankful for everyone’s help, but added, “I don’t want to go through this ever again.” 

Here’s how Nancy remembers Hurricane Irma.

This was our first big hurricane because when Charley came through, I was back in Missouri and Buzz was in Chicago. We used to live on Sanibel and for all the storms that required evacuations we had always gone to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Fort Myers.

I always check in early because we need the handicap room on the first floor. Buzz has a lot of different medical problems, so we go to this hotel, which is also close to the hospital.  

He and I arrived on Thursday, even though I knew the storm wasn’t due until Saturday night or Sunday. But by Friday, residents from Sanibel started checking in. 

And on Saturday about noon, we were in the lobby with other guests when they announced that the hotel was under mandatory evacuation. At that time, Buzz was having trouble breathing, so I just grabbed the medicine and we headed to Gulf Coast Hospital. I took him to the emergency room; they admitted him and kept him there. 

In the meantime, we retained the room at the hotel, so we could return when the hospital released him.

Despite the hospital being swamped, and families of employees staying there, everybody was so helpful. They kept Buzz in the emergency room under observation throughout Saturday night. Sunday they decided he didn’t need the emergency services anymore, but he would be staying in the hospital because of the lockdown. 

Monday morning, we moved back to the Crowne Plaza. The power was out but generators were running, and—I just can’t say enough—everybody was really nice from housekeeping to food and beverage.

People would take some of the fuel from their trucks to keep the generators going for the hotel.

Fritz Pohler, general manager of Shoeless Joe’s restaurant, and his staff provided all the food for the guests. They didn’t have sufficient power, but they managed a buffet in the ballroom. It was just lovely.

Buzz is on a very different type of diet, though. He can’t have potassium, which makes it very tricky with vegetables and food—no potatoes, no bananas. But they were so great and so kind they fixed plates for me to take back to him in the room. And the staff members Daniel, Alexx, Sara, Jose, Jayson and Katie were so helpful.

I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon when the power came back on. I remember we were sitting in the lobby and lights started to flicker.

We ended up staying 15 nights at the hotel. They were so gracious because the reservation hadn’t been for that long. Jim Larkin, general manager at the hotel, and his staff went out of their way so we could stay as long as we needed. In our McGregor Woods neighborhood, some people had power and some people didn’t. Our side didn’t, so we had to wait until it was restored.

I knew we couldn’t have gone to one of those evacuation shelters, so I was very thankful and so relieved that we were able to stay in the hospital, and later at the hotel, where even without power, they did everything to make guests comfortable.

The Story of Luc Century

I’ve lived on Sanibel Island for 35 years and my wife’s been here for 40, so we’ve evacuated half a dozen times. We knew we weren’t going to stick it out because the forecasts for Hurricane Irma were bad and we didn’t want to take the risk.

I packed up the van with loads of my glass art. I didn’t feel safe keeping it at my home, or transporting it over land to my storage unit. It was a large project.

I had a reservation at the Homewood Suites in Fort Myers a full week prior. We got there at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, and by 1 p.m. it was announced that Zone B had to be evacuated. (Homewood Suites was in Zone B.) They kicked everybody out. Most people were leaving, but a lot of them were in tears and didn’t know where to go.

Fortunately, we somehow managed to secure a room across the street at the Crowne Plaza hotel. We thought we were so fortunate to have the room on the fifth floor until the security guard told us that the windows were built to hold up against only 85 mph winds. Forecasts showed Irma would have wind gusts of over 100 mph.

We waited a couple of hours, and I started wondering if my Homewood Suites key still worked. I never got an email confirming a checkout, so I went back; everybody was gone. The building was only two or three stories tall, but in 2004 we rode out hurricane Charley there, so I thought we’d be safe. I tried the key on the door, and it still worked.

We decided to return to our room at Homewood Suites, and we took half of our things with us, leaving the other half in the bathroom at the Crowne Plaza. We spent two nights, and nobody else was there. We had a cooler, the room stayed cool, and I could come and go. We watched the storm from the windows. At times like that you just have to take matters into your own hands. Then we spent Monday back at the Crowne Plaza before returning home Tuesday afternoon.

My house is only at 5 feet of elevation, so I was worried about the storm surge. There were lots of branches down compared to past storms, but it wasn’t as bad as Charley, which had a bigger storm surge. It was the equivalent to a super high tide, so it was very manageable for islanders. We were very fortunate.

JetBlue Care Team

When events such as Hurricane Irma arise, the JetBlue Care Team, part of the airline’s Emergency Response Program, are called into action. Not only is the team responsible for providing short-term and immediate assistance to employees and customers, but in cases like Irma they did their part to help keep the airport operating. 

From providing generators to assisting staff where needed, David Needham, the head of the team, together with John Hallquest, Jin Wang, Robert Ferko, Nicolina Cipriani and Kathleen Merrifield were there to help at a very challenging time for Southwest Florida. The Care Team Members, all volunteers located throughout the JetBlue network, made a difference during and after the storm.

The Story of Kathy Rice

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not really. But, Sunday, September 10, was a dark and stormy afternoon when Hurricane Irma blew into Southwest Florida. I had only experienced a Category 1 hurricane, so this was my first experience of “mandated evacuation” for a storm that threatened to reach Cat 5. I had attended Sanibel’s excellent Hurricane Preparedness Seminar two years ago so I knew I needed to get off the island. Thinking I would not have a home when I returned, I left for Estero to hunker down with friends. We rode out the storm in the safety of their well-built home. I was hot and tired like everyone else, but so very grateful that the predicted surge on Sanibel never arrived. Although my home suffered some damage, it survived. Now it was time to help those who were not as fortunate.

That Monday, Marianne Lorini, president and CEO of the Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida (AAASWFL), recruited me to join her to help answer the United Way 211 hotline at the Lee County Emergency Operations Center. People, looking for everything from gasoline and oxygen to cat food, continued to call non-stop. It was exhausting. I applaud those volunteers for the days they spent providing helpful information to those in need.

I also applaud the work done by the AAASWFL staff. I am a board member and I know that there are great needs for our aging and disabled population on a daily basis, as well as during and after a crisis like Irma. AAASWFL is a resource center for seven counties; it provides access to services that not only improve the quality of life for seniors and the disabled population but also help to keep people “happy at home.”

As the AAASWFL staff answered the Elder Helpline, they addressed many urgent needs. They went above and beyond their job descriptions to deliver donated items like water and grocery gift cards. Staff-supported FEMA information desks worked overtime and rose to the occasion to support our community in a time of need. I am proud to be the vice-chair of the board of this important community organization.

The Story of Zachary Roberts and his Wife Libby Gerstel

The newlywed couple arrived on Sanibel Island from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for their honeymoon just a few days before Hurricane Irma reached Southwest Florida.

Zachery Roberts’ boss and his family own a condo at the Signal Inn on Sanibel and they rented it out to Roberts and his wife Libby Gerstel for their two-week honeymoon in paradise. Little did they know that a Category 5 hurricane was about to hit the island. They found out about the storm a day after their arrival. Here’s how Roberts remembers their honeymoon being swept away by a hurricane.

On Tuesday Libby and I were in our beach chairs. I leaned over to kiss her and my chair broke. I fell flat in the sand. A lady on the beach came over to see if I was all right and started talking about her concerns of Hurricane Irma. That was the first time we heard about it.  
We decided to stay in a shelter on Friday, as we could not find another hotel to house us within a 100-mile radius. We went to Target to get sleeping bags. When we walked in at 1:50 p.m. they announced that if you had not checked out by 2 p.m., they were closing the store and you would have to leave. We found the sleeping bags and pillows by 1:58 p.m. and darted to the checkout.
We spent four days and three nights in South Fort Myers High School. It was the best decision we made regarding the storm because we knew we would be safe at the shelter. There were about 4,000 people, and space was tight. We spent our time in an area the size of two sleeping bags rolled out. People were friendly, and a local family even made us a congratulations card. We plan to frame it and hang it in our house as a remembrance of our honeymoon trip and the kindness extended to us by this family despite the life-threatening events that were about to transpire.
After leaving the high school on Monday, we went to the nearest hotel we could find. They told us that without power they had no way of knowing which rooms were vacant and which were occupied. By some miracle, a custodian appeared around the corner who just happened to know that room 538 was available. The staff showed us to the room, and luckily we had somewhere to stay and a bed to sleep in. We could not find food anywhere though, so we lived off of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and wine.    
On Tuesday, we returned to the Signal Inn. Initially, we planned to leave on Saturday. This was the hardest part of our trip because the thermostat never read less than 90 degrees. Without power there was no air conditioning or fans, and no way of cooling down. We were using wet towels to stay cool and help us sleep. So we booked the next available flight, which was Thursday.

We spent every day on the beach praying the power would come back. It was not until we were loading the car to head to the airport on Thursday that the power kicked on. We celebrated and decided to stay until Saturday. 

Thank God for Bailey’s, it was the first place we found open after the hurricane, and they had what we needed to get by. We salvaged a few nice days. I’m not sure our daughter will appreciate being named after Irma but that’s the plan.

Roberts said they plan on a redo of their honeymoon, and despite the unwanted adventures on Sanibel, they can’t wait to visit the island again.

Beaten and Battered, But Not Broken - Local Residents Contended Quite Well with Hurricane Irma’s Impact

By Ann Marie O’Phelan

On Sunday, September 10, 2017, local residents hunkered down at homes and in shelters. Some fled to other towns and states in preparation for Hurricane Irma’s arrival. It was predicted to hit as a Category 4, with storm surges reaching over 10 feet, and the local community was expecting the worst—and hoping for the best. The Category 3 hit was hard, but thanks to neighborly help, community support and civic assistance, the storm was weathered fairly well. Residents recall their experiences during Irma.

Cape Coral Resident, Terry Louise
Evacuated with her dog, child and a few prized possessions

I left the house with minimal belongings, and, when I left my home, I wasn't sure I'd ever see it again. I was planning on heading north, but when I got out to my car, it wouldn’t start. I called a friend who picked us up. My friend had shutters, and even a boat that we thought we could use if the water got real high. Five days later when I returned to my house, the ceiling was leaking and the fence was down. We had no electricity for a few more days. Still, we counted our blessings.

Matlacha Resident, Paul Brown
Prepared his attic to protect himself, his pets and his supplies

With two dogs and a tortoise to look after, sketchy gas availability, and concerns about the size of the storm, I hunkered down. I got essential supplies in order, moved items to higher ground, and prepared my attic as a possible refuge by loading it up with supplies. Through my transparent storm shutters, I witnessed my massive cecropia tree uprooted. The next day, one of my neighbors helped me cut down the tree, and I provided another neighbor with a cord to my generator. I was thankful to be spared from what could have been catastrophic damage.

Cape Coral Resident, Pamela Aubuchon
Pleased to have the area’s people and pets protected

As an animal lover and the Cape Coral Animal Shelter’s director, I am pleased to say that many of the local shelters welcomed pets openly, while those who evacuated took their pets with them—thanks to many hotels being pet-friendly during the hurricane. This was a bad storm but the community pulled together and helped everyone they could so that no person or pet was left behind. We are blessed that we didn’t get a direct hit. 

Corporal Phil Mullen, Cape Coral Police Department Public Affairs Officer (PAO)
Impressed with dedicated efforts and community involvement

Once the state of emergency for the city was put in place, the entire department shifted to A/B scheduling (12 hours on/12 hours off), a move that doubles staffing on a given shift. Because the roof of the police department leaked into communications (dispatch), the staff had to move to the Emergency Operations Center for a day or two. In addition to normal duties (suspended when winds reach over 40 mph sustained), officers directed traffic, made dozens of welfare checks on people, monitored so looting did not occur, and guarded the generators that kept some of the traffic lights running. It was truly impressive to see how everyone in the community took care of each other.

Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and frequent contributor to TOTI Media.

The Story of Janis Morgan, Bonita Springs

Florida resident since 1951

I’ve lived through Donna, Wilma and Charley and countless other storms. I knew it was a Category 4 hurricane and expected high winds and rain. However, I did not expect storm surge as I hadn’t experienced that before. What we didn’t expect to happen, happened. I’ve never had standing water in my driveway before.

At 2:30 p.m. on Monday, the water began coming through the walls of my home, with flooding measuring 4-5 inches. Outside my house the water rose to about 9 inches, and at the end of my block, it reached 4 feet.

I stayed home and felt safe there, even though we lost power. However, in the future, I would evacuate in similar circumstances.

Although a month has past since the storm, we are still not back to normal. But each day we get closer. Even though I’ve been displaced and probably won’t get back into my home for another month, I’ve been blessed with my family, friends and the kindness of perfect strangers.

The Story of Sue Tangredi, Bonita Springs

Florida resident since 2007

It was an extremely stressful week as Irma was approaching because of the inconsistency of the hurricane’s path. Around September 5, I started preparing the house: hurricane shutters cleaned out, the yard prepped, important documents gathered and other tasks. I assembled supplies from flashlights and water to nonperishables.

My store at the flea market was a one-day gangbuster prep. I had to take all of my canvases and photos off the wall, wrap them and stack them elevated on a couple of tables in the event of a water breach.

My home sits directly on the Estero River. Up until Friday, September 8, I was very much in control. But on Saturday when the path moved to the West Coast, I completely fell apart.
The Weather Channel was calling for a storm surge of 9-15 feet. There were mandatory evacuations, gas shortages, and highways were filled bumper to bumper. It really wasn’t until the police drove through our Estero River Heights neighborhood at about 7 p.m. broadcasting the mandatory evacuation through a bullhorn that I froze with fear.

We decided to stay because there really was no viable option or place to evacuate to by the time the storm shifted west. Hunkering down was safer than being stuck on the highway somewhere. And, after this experience—with the size of the storm and how our home held up—we will probably stay should something like this occur again.

Fortunately, the damage, was not as much as we anticipated. Our lanai cage was destroyed, our well pump and air-conditioning unit were damaged, and our property had tons of tree debris.

We lost power the morning of September 10, and we didn’t get it back for nine days. After the third day, we were able to purchase a generator from Northern Tool.

Now, a month later, I still don’t feel completely back to normal. The stress really took its toll on me physically, and I ended up with bronchitis as a result.

In the eye of Hurricane Irma - How Southwest Florida Survived One of the Most Powerful Storms in History

By Klaudia Balogh 

The expectations and forecasts were troublesome. Stores were out of water, propane and generators, while gas stations ran out of fuel in a matter of only a couple of days leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall. Comparisons to previous hurricanes such as Charley (2004) and Andrew (1992) were showing that Southwest Florida might be facing a much worse hit. Having maintained 185 mph winds for 24 hours as a Category 5 storm, Irma became the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic.

Nearly seven million Floridians were told to evacuate up north or to local shelters to stay safe from the wrath of Irma. However, many stayed preparing for the worst but hoping and praying for the best.

Lee County firefighter and paramedic Kris Pawelczyk were on duty that day. He said after watching Irma get closer and closer, he expected a direct hit and expected the worse. “I evacuated my family three days prior to Georgia and went into work to help prep the community,” he said. “We drove through all the streets announcing a mandatory evacuation.”

Although, the hurricane lost some of its power after landfall, the damage it left behind was still extensive. “It was sad. A lot of people had nothing to go back to. Or had three-to-four feet of water in their living room, everything was destroyed,” Pawelczyk said remembering the sights he saw as they were helping the community and making sure everyone was safe. “It makes it worse emotionally knowing that some of these people barely live check to check. They don't have the money to start over.”

One of the worst hit areas was south Collier County where residents were left without electricity and even drinking water for more than two weeks. And, getting back to normal seemed even farther away. 

“Normal is not happening,” Nicole Williams, founder of the Florida Environmental Coalition, told me, noting that she had lost everything, her house and job in Everglades city. She evacuated her home to north Okeechobee but was worried about her mom being in the hospital in Fort Myers after recently having heart surgery. 

“We could not get in touch with each other for three days. I didn’t hear from my mom, couldn’t get to the hospital. I was trapped where I was. The roads were so flooded and washed over, you couldn’t drive anywhere.“
With her voice cracking and eyes in tears she said she’s never expected to see what happened to her home. “I have no clue in the whole wide world how I’ll ever be able to get any of it back. The foundation of the house is washed away. Most of the roof is gone and there’s water inside.”

She was, however, grateful for the community to step up and help as much as they could. Getting help from F.E.M.A. was a struggle for her, but she did receive some financial assistance to stay at a hotel for a few weeks. But with her home almost completely destroyed, she’s worried what will happen after those few weeks are gone.

If you'd like to share your story of determination and resiliency please submit your story here.