Ian came ashore 20 miles from their mobile home community. After leaving bits and pieces, these old neighbors wonder what’s next

San Carlos Island, Florida

There is an eerie silence in the Picketts’ living room on Wednesday evening as the couple prepares to leave.

The sun is setting, and without electricity, the cramped two-bedroom house on the island of San Carlos will soon be dark again, dimly lit only by the couple’s few candles.

At the front door, 83-year-old Pat Beckett placed a small cardboard box on a stool by the open refrigerator. She fills up quickly as she tells her husband, Leslie, what they will need to take to the shelter together: wash clothes, brush teeth, change clothes. She also takes a bag of gummy bears. The candy helped her quit smoking more than two decades ago and still helps her calm her nerves. And, of course, shampoo, at the first shower they will take more than a week. She says she is excited to finally get her hair in order.

As they follow each other up and down the hallway in the heart of the house, there is no mention of the chaos around them. Most of the furniture was lifted and dumped by the floodwaters created by Hurricane Ian, and is now scattered haphazardly around the house. An armchair balances on the dining table, a TV on its side against the living room wall, and pictures of the sea hang askew. The thin line etched on each wall – about halfway to the ceiling – is a constant reminder of how high the flood waters can be. On different pieces of furniture, the coin-sized specks of bright green mold that appeared grew larger every day.

Janis Joplin and Dean Martin’s CDs rest on a muddy carpet that covers part of the wooden tile. Loose leaves from family recipes were laid out on the remaining tables. The corner kitchen that Pat kept crossing, lit only by a window above the sink, was lined with debris and bowls from the cupboards that I was trying to empty and drain. There’s still a lingering foul smell you hate there, most likely from chicken and shrimp that got worse when a flood destroyed their refrigerator. And everything is covered with thick gray mud, much of it has dried up and cracked and become dusty.

Down the short hallway, Pat grabbed a flashlight from the guest bedroom, where the two had been sleeping for the past week. She says the guest’s bed floated so high in the flood that his sheets and pillows were kept dry and clean. Some of those sheets are now stained with blood, from the wounds Pat and Lee had on their legs after swimming in deep water, chins and blowing through floating furniture.

When they pack the last of their things, they go back to the front door. Above the entrance is a custom sign that reads “Patience is what the sea teaches.”

“I ran out,” said Pat in response to the painted phrase.

A week ago, the couple was not sure that they would live. Leslie, 84, loves the nest they’ve created at Emily Lynn’s Mobile Home Park for the past 18 years, and he didn’t want to leave. And Pat would never leave without him.

But Leslie admits that staying was the wrong decision. When Ian landed a little more than 20 miles from their area, across from the devastated Fort Myers beach island, the canal overflowed behind the couple’s balcony and pushed water into their home. They froze as they worked to keep their chins afloat and hurt from the furniture that kept hitting their tiny tires. But for five hours the two kept swimming, determined to survive.

He said: This is not our time. Pat said as she looked at her husband. “I said, ‘I am,’ and no. ‘All we have to do is keep the faith.’

“And that’s what we did,” says Leslie.

And his wife adds: “Thank you, God.”

Since the storm, Becketts say all they feel they can do is sit back and wait.

The sun is almost setting as the duo slowly make their way up the front steps to meet Charlie Whitehead, their neighbor, who will lead them to a hurricane evacuation shelter in Estero. The trip usually takes about 30 minutes, but has taken more than an hour since the storm hit due to broken street lights.

The three of them did not always agree. When the Beckett family first bought their home in 2004, Charlie’s three children were still young, and Pat often caught them playing basketball in the driveway and stepping on her bushes. But she says the Whiteheads and Becketts are like family now. “He will help anyone, anytime, with anything,” says Leslie.

By this time of day, Charlie had turned off the country music he had been playing on a small speaker earlier as he sorted through family photos on a white glass table outside his house. Just like the Becketts – and most of their neighbors – he couldn’t save much of the house after the storm. So he devoted his time to saving the irreplaceable: high school and college diplomas belonging to his children or Debbie, his wife, and photos depicting the first moments after his children’s births, graduations, birthdays and hugs with family members who are not there is no more. .

Charlie has spent most of his life here and knows the Fort Myers Beach community best. After moving to join his grandmother in the 1980s, he reported for the local paper for more than two decades, was the president of the little league, was elected county commissioner and was twice president of the neighborhood assembly board .

The couple purchased their home in 2004 in the Emily Lynn community on San Carlos Island, across the island from Fort Myers Beach.
Charlie Whitehead spent days trying to save family photos that were nearly destroyed by floods.

“I have roots in this little garage,” says Charlie (64). “Right now I’m just taking out family photos, picking up clothes, trying to save any keepsakes that are on.”

He recently completed thousands of dollars worth of repairs after Hurricane Irma destroyed his home five years earlier. Just months ago, he completed a kitchen renovation for Debbie, who liked to spend quiet mornings there.

So he hesitated before leaving his home. But as Ian gets closer, he decides it’s not safe. He encouraged Becketts to come with him, but they made the decision to stay, he says. When Charlie returned a day later, he called his wife, who was visiting relatives in Colorado, to ask her not to return. He couldn’t bear to see the damage.

“It’s my book,” he says. “Whether you believe these things or not, what happened here is the kind of thing you only read about in the Bible.”

But tonight there is little time to rethink. Becketts finally agreed — days after refusing to leave their home — to go to a shelter, eat a hot meal, shower and sleep in a warm bed. He quickly cleans his red van, clears out the food and drinks he has put in the back for passers-by and gets ready to drive.

Charlie was the couple’s only transport for the past week after both cars were submerged in the storm. The two drove to the emergency room the day after Ian landed, when Leslie’s blood pressure rose. He spent days trying to convince them to stay in a shelter to escape the devastation.

Management doesn’t bother him. Anyway, Charlie says, he’s headed that way to stay with his friend all night anyway.

Pat and Lee share a moment with Charlie to say goodbye as he drops them off at the shelter on Wednesday night.

When the sun returns the next day, Charlie, Pat and Lee are back to normal: sorting through family photos and sitting on their lawn chairs next to their house, talking about their daily chores.

The shelter was not what they had hoped. Pat explains that it was filled with other evacuees, many with young children who were anxious and excited. It has been proven that it is impossible to get more than four hours of sleep. And the long-awaited shower she was looking forward to never happened.

Staff told them that a noisy group of people was causing problems in the shower room, forcing the center to close the area until the morning. Before sunrise, Pat called Charlie and told him they were ready to go.

Shortly after noon in Emily Lynn, Charlie brings lunch to where the couple are sitting: sandwiches in brown paper bags that a friend from Fort Myers Beach has just delivered.

Next, Pat plans to clean the bathroom, scrub the floors and pick up trash so she can take a shower. The duo also plan to cut each other’s hair – a tradition they started decades ago, mostly to save time when their three sons were young and the couple worked full-time.

On a table outside his house are photos that Charlie hopes to save.

After that, Becketts had some plans. They hope their youngest son, Tony, can bring a car from Ohio so they can go to a doctor’s appointment next week, pick up their mail and go to a local library to meet with FEMA representatives. With no transportation, no electricity and no internet to fill out an online FEMA application, all they can do now is sit back and wait. “And I’m not a babysitter,” says Pat.

“Besides that, life goes on, God willing, our children are special,” she adds.

And we don’t expect miracles, adds Leslie.

This is far in the future as their discussions take place nowadays. Ideas of rebuilding or moving away do not seem to be a priority yet. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Pat confessed earlier. Although their son invited them to stay in their home, they know how harsh Ohio winters can be. Maybe a garage, you say. Maybe rebuild, but it will take at least two to three years.

Charlie, who is back to flipping through the photos, doesn’t know what’s next either.

Charlie, in his red van, was the lifeline of the couple next door.

“Someone asked me about my plans yesterday. And I told them that (in) tonight in the dark, I’m going to have a cold beer,” he said earlier. “There’s really no way to plan beyond that.”

Maybe they will move to Colorado with his wife. But Charlie raised three children in the house behind him, and it’s hard to imagine leaving. It’s hard to put into words how he felt and what he saw, and he wonders how he would describe what Ian had left if he were still a reporter.

“This is the end of a very long chapter about Fort Myers Beach, in Emily Lynn,” he says. “Shit, I don’t know how to write this story. I’m glad I’m not.”

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