FORT MYERS BEACH
When Debra Gingell heard that a Category 4 hurricane was headed toward her Bayside Estates home, she couldn’t take her eyes off the television.
Gingell watched it all unfold from Maryland.
“It wasn’t even two hours into the storm I got an email from my insurance company saying your property has been affected,” Gingell said.
The word “affected” doesn’t do justice to what happened to her property.
Her community still has a mountain of debris welcoming homeowners two months later.
Hurricane Ian spared no one. It ripped away roofs, flooded homes, and left people dead.
“I began to realize immediately that this was going to be pretty overwhelming, to say the least,” Gingell said.
Gingell returned home to find thick muck covering her tiles and a waterline 5 feet high. Cabinets were filled with water that surged inside. The hurricane tossed around her belongings with no regard for anything.
“There’s a number of people that stayed,” Gingell said. “It breaks my heart because this neighborhood has been around for a long time, 50 years plus. And so a lot of the residents are older, and I don’t think they have the resources or the wherewithal to be able to start over and do basically what I’m trying to do.”
Many of Gingell’s neighbors gave up and got out.
There are signs everywhere that show how damaged homes had to be torn down.
But Gingell’s friends wouldn’t allow her to do the same.
Together, they gutted her home, and thanks to a specialized group of volunteers who stationed themselves in the center of the neighborhood, she has access to food, water, and a helping hand.
The Patriotic Emergency Response Team is stationed in the Bayside Estates community.
“Humans coming together in a way that, you know, sad to say in a tragedy, you know, people do come together, and it’s life-changing,” Gingell said. “It truly has been.”
Corey White, who leads the specialized team, said it reminds him of a war movie.
Just imagine that on a smaller scale. Here, you know, the devastation, the buildings being torn up, the people just wounded and battered. And I mean, that’s what my personality thinks of it as a war zone,” White said.
White leads the team, which arrived in the neighborhood soon after the storm passed through Southwest Florida.
Their first job was to search, and then it was to rescue.
“We rescued about 40 families out of here. Some didn’t want to leave. Some did not stay. But it was just devastation. It was dark. There was nothing that could possibly survive that. But a lot of these residents did persevere,” White said.
White and his team saw Ian’s incredible storm surge and catastrophic winds. That’s why the team has stuck around.
“The mood of the residents were typically scared. Anybody who’s been through something very traumatic like that they don’t know what to do. They’re overwhelmed, they’re stressed out. They don’t even know which way to turn, no signal, no phone, they don’t have a way of getting ahold of anybody,” White said.
Now, nearly three months after Ian, this community is still scared, suffering, and struggling to move forward.
There’s this massive debris pile right as you drive in, and it’s a constant reminder of Ian’s deadly strike.
And there are signs all over, marking where homes were so damaged they had to be torn down.
Some would happily leave, but for White, it’s an honor to be here.
“What keeps us here is the compassion. A lot of residents just need compassion. They just need to feel loved and have some kind of hope,” White said.
And you can see the love the community has for him.
“Basically, what we do is every day we cook here, we feed anywhere from 150 to 300 meals a day. And then we have supplies for all the residents and neighboring communities such as canned goods, such as cleaning supplies, hygiene kits, water, everything that anybody can ever use, whether they have a stove or not,” he said.
The focus now is recovery.
The Patriotic Emergency Response Team will remain to help until they are no longer needed.