San Carlos Island, Florida
On Wednesday night, the Picketts’ living room is eerily quiet as the couple pack up to leave.
The sun is setting, and without electricity, the cramped two-bedroom mobile home on San Carlos Island will soon be dark again, dimly lit by a few pairs of candles.
By the front door, 83-year-old Pat Pickett stacked a small cardboard box on a stool next to his open refrigerator. It quickly fills up as she lists out loud to her husband, Leslie, what they will need to take with them to the shelter: washcloths, toothbrushes, a change of clothes. She also takes a bag of gummies. Candy helped her quit smoking more than two decades ago, and it still calms her nerves. And of course shampoo, they will take more than a week for the first shower. She says she’s excited to finally get her hair done.
As they follow each other up and down the corridor at the heart of the house, there is no word of the chaos around them. Most of the furniture was lifted and thrown away by the floods of Hurricane Ian and now lies haphazardly scattered around the house. An armchair balances on the dining table, a TV stands on its side against the wall of the living room, portraits of the sea hang crookedly. A thin line etched on each wall – about halfway up the ceiling – is a constant reminder of how high the tide has reached. Spots of bright green mold the size of a coin on various pieces of furniture are growing every day.
Janis Joplin and Dean Martin CDs sit on a dirt mat covering some of the wooden tiles. Loose family recipe papers are laid out on surviving tables. The corner kitchen that Pat keeps crossing, lit only by the window over the sink, is lined with trash and bowls from the cupboards she’s been trying to empty and dry. There’s still a stench she hates, probably from the chicken and shrimp that went bad when the flood destroyed their refrigerator. And everything is covered in thick, gray sludge, much of which has dried, split, and turned to dust.
Down the short hallway, Pat retrieves a flashlight from the guest bedroom where they’ve spent the past week sleeping. The guest bed rose so high in the flood that her sheets and pillows remained dry and clean, she says. Some of those sheets are now stained with blood from what Pat and Les got on their feet as they swam through chin-deep waters and waded past floating furniture.
As they pack the last of their belongings, they return to the front door. A custom-made sign above the entrance reads: “The sea teaches patience.”
“I ran out,” says Pat in response to the painted phrase.
A week ago, the couple wasn’t sure they would survive. Leslie, 84, loves the nest they’ve built in the Emily Lane mobile home park for the past 18 years, and he didn’t want to leave. And Pat would never leave without him.
But staying was the wrong decision, Leslie admits. When Ian made landfall a little more than 20 miles from their neighborhood, across the devastated Fort Myers beach, the canal behind the couple’s porch overflowed and pushed water into their home. They froze as they worked to keep their chins above water and ached from the furniture that kept bumping into the small frames. But for five hours the pair kept swimming, determined to stay alive.
“He said, ‘It’s not our time.’ God doesn’t want me yet,” says Pat, looking at her husband. “I said, ‘Me neither.’ All we have to do is keep the faith.”
“And that’s what we did,” says Leslie.
“Thank God,” adds his wife.
The sun is almost setting as the duo slowly walk up the front steps to meet Charlie Whitehead, their neighbor, who will lead them to a hurricane shelter in Estero. The drive normally takes about 30 minutes, but has taken over an hour since the storm hit due to broken street lights.
The three did not always get along. When the Picketts first bought their home in 2004, Charlie’s three children were still young, and Pat would often catch them playing basketball in the driveway and trampling her bushes. But the Whiteheads and Picketts have become like family now, she says. “He would help anyone, anytime, with anything,” Leslie says.
At this time of day, Charlie turned off the country music he’d been playing on the small speaker before as he sorted through family photos on the white glass table outside his house. Like the Picketts and most of their neighbors, he wasn’t able to salvage much from the house after the storm. So he spends his time preserving what cannot be replaced: high school and college diplomas belonging to his children or his wife, Debbie, photographs of the first moments after his children were born, graduations, birthdays, hugs with family members who are is no longer around.
Charlie has spent most of his life here and knows the Fort Myers Beach community better than most. After moving in with his grandmother in the 1980s, he spent more than two decades reporting for the local newspaper, serving as Little League president, running for county commissioner and serving twice as chairman of the neighborhood association board.
“I have roots in this little mobile home park,” says Charlie, 64. “Now I just pull family photos, pull clothes and try to save whatever memories I have.
He recently completed thousands of dollars worth of repairs after Hurricane Irma tore through his home five years ago. Just a few months ago, he completed a kitchen renovation for Debbie, who loved spending quiet mornings there.
Therefore, he hesitated before leaving the house. But when Ian approached, he decided it wasn’t safe. He urged the Picketts to come with him, but they decided to stay, he says. When Charlie returned a day later, he called his wife, who was visiting Colorado, to ask her not to come back. He couldn’t bear to see the damage.
“It’s biblical,” he says. “Whether you believe it or not, things happened here that you only read about in the Bible.
But tonight there is little time to think. The pickets – after several days of refusing to leave their homes – finally agreed to go to the shelter, eat hot food, take a shower, sleep in a warm bed. He quickly cleans his red pickup truck, cleans up the snacks and drinks he had placed in the back for passers-by, and prepares to drive off.
Last week, Charlie was the couple’s only means of communication when their two cars were flooded during a storm. He took the couple to the emergency room a day after Ian made landfall when Leslie’s blood pressure skyrocketed. And he spent days trying to convince them to stay in the shelter to escape the destruction.
Driving does not bother him. Anyway, Charlie says, he’s heading in that direction anyway to stay the night with a friend.
As the sun comes up the next day, Charlie, Pat, and Les find themselves back in position: he’s sorting through family photos while they sit in lawn chairs outside their house talking about the day’s work.
The shelter was not what they expected. It was packed with other evacuees, many of them with anxious and restless children, Pat explains. It turned out that it was impossible to sleep more than four hours. The long-awaited shower that she was looking forward to so much also did not happen.
Staff told them that a rowdy group of people had caused problems in the shower room, forcing the center to close the area until the morning. Before sunrise, Pat called Charlie to tell him they were ready to go.
A little after noon at Emily Lane, Charlie brings lunch to where the couple are sitting: sandwiches in brown paper bags that a friend has just brought from Fort Myers Beach.
Pat then plans to clean the bathroom, scrub the floor and collect the trash so she can take a shower. The duo also plan to cut each other’s hair, a tradition they started decades ago, mostly to save time when their three sons were young and the couple worked full-time.
After that, the Picketts have few plans. They hope their youngest son, Tony, can get the car from Ohio so he can go to the doctor next week, pick up the mail, and go to the local library to meet with FEMA representatives. With no transportation, no food, and no internet to fill out the FEMA application online, all they can do now is sit and wait. “And I’m not a babysitter,” says Pat.
“Other than that,” she adds, “life goes on, God, our sons are special.
“And we don’t expect miracles,” adds Leslie.
It’s as distant a future as their conversations today. Thoughts about rebuilding or moving out don’t seem to be a priority just yet. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Pat admitted earlier. Although their son invited them to stay at his home, they both know how harsh Ohio winters can be. Maybe a mobile home, she says. Maybe rebuild, but it will take at least two to three years.
Charlie, who comes back through the photos, also doesn’t know what’s next.
“Someone asked me yesterday what my plans were. And I told them I was going to have a cold beer tonight about dark,” he previously said. “There’s really no way to plan ahead.
Maybe he and his wife will move to Colorado. But Charlie has raised three children at home who sit in the back, and leaving is hard to think about. It’s hard to put into words how he feels and what he’s seen, and he wonders how he would describe what Ian left behind if he were still a reporter.
“This is the end of a very long chapter about Fort Myers Beach, Emily Lane,” he says. “Shit, I don’t know how I’m going to write this story. I’m glad I’m not.”