The home I remember will never be the same.
Days after Hurricane Ian obliterated parts of Southwest Florida, I drove over the Matanzas Pass Bridge onto Fort Myers Beach for the first time since moving to New York back in February. Sitting in the tailgate of a Florida Task Force 2 pickup truck, the once-familiar view of an island where I spent considerable time with friends and family for six years now looked almost unrecognizable. Times Square is gone. The Cottage Bar, leveled. And yet despite the immense damage to every building in sight, I immediately wondered: how many lives were lost in the transition of this former beach paradise to the current ghost town I see before me? We still don’t know.
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Over a week after Ian’s landfall, search and rescue teams on Fort Myers Beach used drones, cadaver dogs and boats to look for more hurricane victims. Dogs still picked up new scents.
A week prior, those “scents” were living people and many of my close friends encountered them. My former co-anchor in Fort Myers told me about a woman she interviewed before landfall. The woman planned to have a “hurricane party” with her friends. One of those friends died after being swept away in the storm surge. Tragically, she was one of many.
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A Fort Myers Beach resident told me he knew multiple people who died on the island.
Across the bridge I found survivors who lost nearly all of their possessions. Dozens were living in makeshift tents after their homes had been destroyed. Yet despite enduring such financial and emotional hardship, it was their resilience that I found most overwhelming. They have no plans to leave; they will rebuild.
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During a time when so many needed so much, so few worried about themselves. A physician’s assistant spent her days providing free mobile medical care to people living on the street; a Lee Health nurse cared for patients while being separated from his family for three consecutive days; workers at the Humane Society of Naples barely slept for a week while facilitating the care and future adoption of animals impacted by Hurricane Ian.
These are the reasons why I am so proud of the people in my former home of Southwest Florida. And it’s why we will persevere.
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Even though I now live a thousand miles away, a piece of my heart remains with you.
I will be back, and hopefully under much better circumstances.
All my love,