Hurricane Ian evacuees temporarily settle in John Prince Park
The peaceful lakeside John Prince Park Campground in Lake Worth has become an unplanned refuge for people who have been displaced or whose plans have been disrupted by Hurricane Ian.
Some whose homes on wheels were parked there this week plan to return to the southwest coast, but their questions about when and how life will be different once they return persist more than a week after the hurricane devastated the ‘State.
The Category 4 storm that made landfall near Cayo Costa on September 28 caused at least 89 deaths in the state and tens of thousands of lingering power outages, destroying countless homes and businesses and disrupting the lives of residents of their coastal communities.
The paths of people from different walks of life and professions who were affected by the hurricane converged on the campground – a place several miles from where they expected to be.
Teachers who do not know when they will return to work. A family of three plans to buy a new home in a storm-hit town. A lifelong resident of Fort Myers whose hometown has changed forever. State park volunteers whose nomadic lifestyle has led them down the path of historic, cataclysmic natural disaster. They were all waiting at the camp for what was to come.
Chris Constantinides, 43, of North Carolina, his wife and 3-year-old daughter arrived at the campsite on September 30 after leaving Englewood in Charlotte and Sarasota counties where they were staying in an Airbnb until they can buy a new house.
For the safety of their daughter and the certainty that Ian would land like a major hurricane, Constantinides and his wife evacuated before any orders and rented another Airbnb in Palm Beach County, an area they saw to be out of the storm’s ruinous path.
Ian was coming and going, but Constantinides and his family still had no place to go, he said, other than their small motorhome. A week after Ian landed, Constantinides’ family had spent five nights in the park. The neighborhood where their rental house was located is now decimated.
“The hangars were upside down. Some roofs have disappeared. At the time we were there some people had everything they owned in the front yard trying to dry it out. There were nearby trailer parks completely obliterated. There were people walking down the street looking for their belongings,” he said.
While checking in at the campground, Constantidines said he overheard a staff member taking a phone call from someone assigned by Ian who was hoping to get a spot. The park couldn’t guarantee one because they were “inundated” with people looking for accommodation, he said. Constantinides heard similar pleas when he extended his stay for a few more nights.
Although they don’t know where they will go or how long their transitional state will last, they have made the most of their time at the park. They brought bicycles and a canoe which they rowed through the water. Sidewalk chalk drawings decorated the sidewalk near their lot. Their daughter turned 3 at the campsite and they made an effort to celebrate with some semblance of normality – a chocolate cake from Publix and presents to open.
“I never expected to spend my evacuated 3-year-old son’s birthday at a campsite somewhere I never thought I’d go,” he said with a laugh. “But hey, it’s okay.”
They hope to return to Englewood where their belongings and some family members are, but with no power or resources, he said he was still skeptical of his daughter’s return.
Not far from the Constantinides site, Lenny Mena, 40, of North Fort Myers, parked his RV at the campground after evacuating Pioneer Village, an RV park in North Fort Myers.
Once he saw Ian’s path closing in on his area, he said he knew he and his family weren’t going to stay. They left for Palm Beach County a day before Ian made landfall.
“We expected him to come closer, so as a precaution we came here. But it was definitely the right decision because it went well for us there,” Mena said.
Mena said he followed people who lived in their RV park through a Facebook group and saw photos of the devastation in their community.
“The street we live on, we can’t even put our rig there if we wanted to,” he said.
The park where they lived is not yet letting residents in, he said. He, his wife, his three children and his dog plan to return on Saturday but are not sure if they will have electricity or access to their land. And they worry about how jobs outside of those in the construction industry will fare now.
They booked three nights at John Prince Park. Then another day. Then another week. And they may have to extend again, he said, if they don’t have power or access to their home RV park.
Mena, who works in real estate, said he has already started fielding calls from hurricane-affected people looking for homes to rent.
“The market was already stressful, and I don’t know where it’s going to go,” he said.
His children, 13, 8 and 6, who were playing in the park’s playground on Wednesday afternoon didn’t quite grasp the severity of the destruction, he said.
“They’ve seen some of the news, but it hasn’t really hit them yet because they haven’t really seen it in real life,” he said. “I guess it’s good to be a kid. Simply not a worry in the world.
Dawn McDaniel and her husband Tim McDaniel are teachers at Challenger Middle School in Cape Coral. They weathered the storm at Tim’s parents’ home on the South West Coast and arrived at the park on Sunday where they will stay until water and power are restored to their RV park in North Fort Myers or be called back to work at school, they said.
Students and educators were still recovering from the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tim McDaniel said. Now he anticipates a similar struggle over Ian’s traumatic experience.
At least four schools in the district are “unsalvageable”, said Dawn McDaniel, and at least 14 others have been significantly damaged and need to be assessed to determine if they can be repaired. This leaves things hanging in the balance for many students and staff at schools that have been wiped out.
The McDaniels planned to stay at the campsite for a few days before visiting their son who is attending Leesburg University, and they said that was all their plan was for now. Their RV park in North Fort Myers is still without water or power.
They used the word “surreal” to describe last week, with the town they lived in for 18 years now making national headlines.
“We’ve seen so many years of natural disaster footage and it’s still someone else’s town,” Dawn said.
But the images and videos they now see after Ian are of familiar places around Cape Coral.
“My stomach is in knots,” she said. “All of our favorite places in Fort Myers Beach are gone.”
They said they believe devastated communities will rebuild in innovative and smart ways after Ian.
“That saltiness, that kind of attitude, that’s going to stay. They’re going to build smarter, but the owners of the businesses and the owners of the homes, the people who have invested several generations of their families there, they’re the same said Dawn.
Bonney Scudieri had been volunteering at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine on the northeast coast as Ian headed across the state. She saw that Ian was heading to the Naples area, where his next seasonal job at a resort is due to start in November.
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As part of a mandatory state park evacuation, Scudieri left as Ian’s outer bands reached the east coast and headed to John Prince Park with his kayak and bike in tow.
Some of his volunteer friends returned to the state park a few days after the storm to help clean up.
“There was some flooding, but overall the damage wasn’t anywhere near what it was on the west coast,” she said.
The resort where she works in Naples, about 25 minutes from the beach, suffered minimal damage, she said. She scrolled through photos she took on her mobile phone of Naples, worried about what the same streets might look like after the hurricane.
“There is nothing more beautiful than Naples. Napoli at Christmas. Naples at night. Walk on Fifth Avenue, dine there,” she said. “I spend the holidays there so I can’t even imagine what it’s like and it’s so concerning.”
She thought back to the first winter she spent in Florida when she kayaked in Sanibel and went to Bunche Beach near Fort Myers. She remembered kayaking to a beach off Marco Island that she knew was a good place to collect seashells.
“I was like, ‘I wonder if this still exists,'” she said.