Displaced Hurricane Ian survivors prepare for homeless vacation

Kate Gauntt, left, in front of her family’s destroyed home in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, nearly three months after Hurricane Ian tore through the area. (Thomas Simonetti for the Washington Post)


FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — John and Kate Gauntt’s large, storm-battered second-floor mango wood table was lined with paper plates and a tray full of Costco hot dogs. The couple gathered their children, said a quick prayer and began to serve.

Meals like this have become sacrosanct for the family of 10 since Hurricane Ian flooded their home in late September, destroying their belongings and forcing them to strip the interior down to the studs and subfloor. It’s where they talk, laugh, play games and relax in the evenings before settling into a trailer in their driveway to sleep.

“Family is sacred,” said John Gauntt, 38. “We choose the quality of our relationship over the quality of our business.”

three months after Ian knockedthousands of Floridians whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the Category 4 hurricane remain displaced. The total number of people living without permanent housing is unclear, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided housing assistance to more than 55,000 households, according to FEMA statistics, hinting at the scale of the problem.

Many of those who lost their homes say they felt the foundations of their lives and their future shifting beneath them. Some face the prospect of permanent relocation if their fortunes do not change in the new year. Others are grappling with painful decisions about how to move forward in a region devastated by the historic storm.

For the Gauntts and their eight children, ages 15 months to 15, the gutted house briefly feels like a home again when they gather for dinner.

But their situation is untenable. There are too many construction hazards for the family to stay inside for long, and the trailer is cramped. The couple are concerned that the older children will become restless as this limbo drags on. As the holidays approach, they are faced with an agonizing choice: part ways with the house and uproot the family, or slowly wind down repairs until they can move in again.

“At the end of the day,” said Kate Gauntt, 34, “we still live in a war zone with children.”

Explore aerial footage of Hurricane Ian’s damage to the Florida coast

At an Airbnb in downtown Fort Myers, Toby Hillen poured himself a glass of Hawaiian punch and collapsed on the couch with his dog, a chihuahua-dachshund named Cody.

It had been another exhausting day of paperwork and phone calls in the seemingly endless race to find a stable place to live. She had previously been denied a temporary FEMA trailer. Now she was waiting for housing assistance.

“Trying to get answers,” she joked, “is like trying to explain the smell of the color nine.”

The past month has been like a race against time for the 51-year-old and her teenage daughter, Emily.

The mobile home they shared in Fort Myers was filled with nine inches of sewage, leaving it uninhabitable until it could afford a full renovation.

The vacation rental they were in now was a stopgap, which was to end three days after Christmas with no possibility of extension. Even if they could stay, Hillen’s salary as a cashier at a mini-golf course wouldn’t be enough to cover it.

For weeks, she scoured apartment listings. Prices had risen in the area, but moving to a cheaper location further inland was out of the question.

“The only normalcy we have,” Hillen said, “is that my daughter can go to school and I can go to work.”

Two of the apartments they visited were not up for it. One was badly damaged by the storm, the other tucked away in a neighborhood where they didn’t feel safe.

Finally, a decent two-bedroom apartment appeared. They could barely afford it. But it was clean and quiet, and close to Emily’s school. Also, there were hurricane proof windows. Hillen signed the lease.

They spend Christmas in their Airbnb. A few people from the community helped them with gifts and Hillen put up a small tree in the living room. The real gift, however, would be the new roof over their heads.

“That hurdle is cleared,” Hillen said. “Now we just have to figure out how to furnish the place.”

Scott and Sammy Wilson met here years ago, when he was a bouncer and she was a bartender at the Lani Kai Island Resort. They had come for the beach, for the sun, and had stayed for each other, finding work in a supply house for the shrimpers on the island of San Carlos.

Ian left their two-bedroom house near the shipyard beyond repair and destroyed the mobile home they owned across the street. The stress of the storm killed their aging dogs, Trixie and Slayer. Scott Wilson lost thousands of dollars worth of welding tools.

Also missing: the 1984 Chevrolet Camaro he bought for $700 a quarter century ago. It had driven like new thanks to the work he had put into it. But the waters swept away the car, and now it lay buried in a 15ft pile of trash near his yard, only its license plate visible under a mass of scrap lumber and tree branches.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Wilson, 47, climbed a ladder in the living room of his home and took stock of all the loss once again.

“We try to do the best we can with what we have left,” he said. But there’s a limit to what they can save. And mold is slowly spreading on all surfaces.

Help came in bursts. The couple had been living on a futon in a welding shop for weeks when family members in the northeast bought them a 32ft trailer and drove it. Rescuers brought generators and food. And a pair of FEMA checks — one for $700, another for $2,282 — helped cover rent and utilities.

With around 50 shrimp boats still aground or sunk, the couple’s work has dwindled. Some days there’s nothing to do but share beers and talk business with the ship’s workers in a canopy tent in San Carlos Marine Park. They considered whether to leave the area or even the state, perhaps to return to Wilson’s native New Jersey.

“I don’t like giving up on anything,” Wilson said. “And I’m not going to start with that.”

John Velez scanned what was left of the bathroom door in his squat single family home and let out a nervous laugh.

“We had the kids’ size marks here,” he said. “Let’s go.”

The 33-year-old once had a vision to make it the Thanksgiving house, the 4th of July house, “the place where the family comes together and forgets about their problems,” he said. His father had bought it more than ten years ago. One day, Velez hoped to pass it on to his children – Sadie, 10, and Caden, 7.

“In my culture, home is a symbol of family,” said Velez, who was born in Colombia and came to the United States in 2004. “It’s passed down.”

But the hurricane upended that dream, flooding property in Fort Myers’ Harlem Heights neighborhood and tearing through the roof. It also affected his business. Velez runs a tree service business called MSF, short for “my son’s future” and “my Sadie’s future.” He lost chainsaws, electric pruners and two Ford F-150s in the storm.

The family is now in an apartment. Velez drops by to check his mail and inspect the property but never stays long. They had to strip drywall and waterlogged trim, leaving only studs, exposed cinder blocks and plastic sheeting. Memories of what it looked like and how they narrowly escaped the floods are still fresh.

These days, Velez is focusing on other things. He restarts his tree service. He’s also working on himself, he said, by going to therapy to help him process everything he and his family have been through.

He doesn’t know what it will take to revive his dream home. A redesign would help, or at least new drywall and paint.

“It will always be our home, but we are traumatized,” he said. “It’s still an open wound.”

On Sunday morning, John and Kate Gauntt took their children in a 12-seater van and drove to church in Fort Myers. Their two vehicles – a Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and a 15-passenger van – were destroyed in the storm. This one was a gift from a family friend.

As they crossed the steep bridge that connects Fort Myers Beach to the mainland, John Gauntt gazed down at the wreckage below. There were so many things to clean up.

“It used to be ‘Wow, look where we live,'” said Gauntt, who runs a charter fishing business. “Now it’s, ‘Wow, look at all the shrimp boats still sitting on top of the houses.'”

It had been the house for two decades. His parents had bought their house when he was a teenager, and the couple bought it from theirs in 2019. Gauntt and his father had spent years fixing it up, while his mother, a decorator, gave the interior a distinctive touch. “I’ve been part of every piece of trim and paneling there,” Gauntt said.

They also loved their community. An annual Christmas toy drive hosted by a local nonprofit at a vacant seafood restaurant has drawn a wave of donations for families affected by the storm. Kate Gauntt had spent the previous afternoon choosing presents for her children and wrapping them in the dining room with a group of other parents.

In a perfect world, they would stay. But the storm brought a settling of scores.

To bring the house up to code, they would need to rebuild from scratch. Without some kind of financial windfall, it would be prohibitively expensive. They could also stay and fix it themselves. But that would require long hours of work over several months at least, during which they would have to live as they do now, crammed into their caravan.

Selling, heartbreaking as it was, seemed like a more realistic option. The couple therefore put their house on the market, hoping that if an offer came up, it would be enough to finance a new home suitable for their large family. “It is our responsibility to have our children in a safe home,” John Gauntt said, “not an ongoing project.”

While on the road, a text message arrived from the couple’s real estate agent. “Bingo! it read. “Showing demand for 1:45 to 2:00 today. Good?”

“Dark!” Gauntt responded by text.

At church, the family listened to a service on finding peace. “What disturbs our peace?” asked the pastor. Obstacles, he says. Unmet expectations.

“God doesn’t always choose the easy path for us,” he continued. “Does anyone like the easy way? I know I do. Gauntt raised his hand.

Then, in the parking lot outside, the couple tried not to think too much about the real estate agent’s text. An open house the day before hadn’t generated much interest. For now, the biggest question was where to take their group of kids for brunch. The house could wait.

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