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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Our bubble has been burst’: Older storm victims face an uncertain future

Del and Jane Compton on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, outside the church in Fort Myers, Fla., where they have been staying since their home was destroyed by Hurricane Ian. They are planning to move back to Louisville, Ky.

By Emily Cochrane and Julie Bosman

More than two decades ago, Jane and Del Compton stumbled upon Fort Myers while on vacation in southwest Florida. This was where they would retire, they decided on the spot, in a place where they could grow old in peace and sunshine.

They bought a double lot with a mobile home and a few small luxuries: a fan with a remote and his-and-hers televisions so she could follow her soap operas and he could watch cowboy shows.

But Hurricane Ian ravaged their piece of paradise, soaking the photos from four decades of marriage, destroying their car and leaving them without a place to live. They had no homeowner’s insurance; their policy was canceled in June because of the age of their home, a 1978 model.

Now the Comptons — she at 77, he at 81 — are resigned to abandoning their retirement dream. They will return to their native Louisville, Kentucky, in the coming weeks to stay with their daughter and figure out their next steps, although they are loath to leave their beloved church community and friends. Spending their twilight years in Florida seems suddenly out of reach.

“We have talked about it; we have argued about it; we have screamed about it; we have cried about it,” said Jane Compton, sitting outside the church where the couple has stayed with the one box of sentimental treasures they managed to salvage. “Our bubble has been burst.”

Official tallies of deaths related to the storm suggest that older Americans died in disproportionate numbers. Ages or approximate ages have been released for 96 of the hurricane’s 126 victims in Florida and North Carolina. At least 70 people who died were 60 or older. Many victims were found dead at their homes. But Ian not only killed more older people; it also created uniquely wrenching situations for those who survived.

Even if they can afford to rebuild, those people may not have the time or energy required for such a difficult task, and the prospect of tighter building codes might make that more expensive than ever. Many, like the Comptons, live on fixed incomes, lack flood insurance or purchased their homes before the housing boom of the past decade, when the region was far more affordable. Recapturing their paradise may not be possible — a cruel and abrupt blow.

In interviews, several residents said they had defiantly ridden out the storm in the homes they had poured their savings into, partly to ensure they could easily begin cleaning up the damage.

Richard Hoyle, 75, moved with his wife to Pine Island, near Fort Myers, in December, after she asked to move to the region from the mountains of Tennessee. He had insisted that they stay through the hurricane, but the storm surge lapped the second flight of stairs to their home, and they watched boats fly across the canal in winds that topped 150 mph.

“We’d already decided, this is our retirement home, and we’ll stay and fight for it,” said Hoyle, a former Marine and firefighter. “I’m glad that we stayed — some battles are worth fighting.”

Likewise, Garland Roach, 79, said he had no intention of leaving his badly damaged home in a modest neighborhood of North Fort Myers, where the lone palm tree in his front yard was now surrounded by drain pipes, siding and other debris.

“My daughter wants me to come back to Ohio, and I told her I would in my ashes,” he said, adding that he was hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard would provide a tarp for his mangled roof. “I couldn’t last another winter up there with my arthritis.”

Two deaths from the storm, Florida officials said, were men in their 70s who shot themselves after seeing the destruction to their property.

“I think it’s a breaking point for a lot of people,” said Carol Freeman, 75, pausing as she cleaned the muddied floor of her home on Pine Island, which was ravaged by the storm.

Since the hurricane, Freeman, a retired postal worker who lives with her parrot, Jose, had been without power, forced to use baby wipes to keep clean and, at least once, eat a donated military-style meal for dinner. She had spent days debating whether it was worth staying.

It may be time, she said, to return to her native Chicago after about four decades on the island. “Too old to be doing this,” she said.

Some retirees who wintered on the Gulf Coast are already planning their exits from the state.

In Fort Myers Beach, an island town that attracted tourists and Midwestern snowbirds, entire groups of friends were gathering recently to inspect the wreckage — and to start mourning the end of their Florida lives. At Gulf Cove, a mobile home community near the base of a bridge, residents were trying to salvage belongings from their ruined properties. Some said that they expected that the patch of waterfront land where they had cultivated tight-knit friendships over the years would be sold to developers and razed.

“Even if something miraculous happened that we could get back together, there are a lot of couples in their 80s or 90s,” said one of the residents, Deb Macer, 69. “They’re just not going to come back.”

Before the hurricane, days in their neighborhood had a familiar, comforting rhythm. The retirees who lived there planned coffee hours and daily walks over the bridge to Estero Island. Macer planned crafting get-togethers, and her husband, Stacy, 70, was known as the community handyman.

“I fear it’s gone,” said their friend Paul Wasko, 75. “This way of life is gone.”

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