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‘There’s nothing I can do’: Students watch as Hurricane Ian destroys homes

About one year ago, Paris Thompson’s family bought a 100-foot houseboat. The boat, which they rented out as an Airbnb on Fort Myers Beach in Florida, was found one and a half miles inland atop other homes following Hurricane Ian last week.

“It was completely destroyed,” Thompson, a sophomore from Fort Myers on the women’s volleyball team, said.

Nine days after the hurricane struck Florida, the death toll has risen to 101, according to the Associated Press. The Category 4 storm is the second-deadliest hurricane to hit the mainland U.S. this century.

As the storm barreled towards the U.S., Notre Dame students from southwest Florida were forced to watch as their families braced for cover.

“I just felt kind of helpless. My whole family is back home, there’s nothing I can do, and I felt kind of guilty that I’m away, but I didn’t do anything wrong,” freshman Ethan Gable from Naples said.

Thompson said she could not contact her family for days after the hurricane made landfall.

“I called my parents 100 times from the day it hit to like Saturday and couldn’t get a hold of them. So I was seeing on the news bodies [that] are found and I’m freaking out because I’m like, ‘I haven’t been able to talk to my family,’” she said.

All of Thompson’s family members stayed safe during the storm, and her mother and father’s houses avoided serious damage. Her mother’s house had about eight feet of standing water in the garage but avoided significant flooding inside the rest of the house, she said. Her parents parked their cars by the interstate farther inland to avoid the brunt of the storm surge.

Alexandra Chlumsky, a senior pole vaulter on the track and field team from Fort Myers, said she did not anticipate the storm to be that devastating. Having grown up in Florida with the perennial threat of hurricanes, Chlumsky thought her family was prepared. However, as Ian approached last Wednesday, the magnitude of the storm quickly began to set in. She said she left her class when her mother informed her of the expected storm surge — before they lost cell phone service.

“It was emotional for me because this was so much worse than anyone anticipated,” Chlumsky said. “In the moments leading up to it, my dad, he told me that this is as scared as he’s probably ever been in his life.”

A car submerged in senior Alexandra Chlumsky’s neighborhood in Fort Myers, Florida.(Courtesy of Alexandra Chlumsky)

The Chlumskys suffered a better fate than most of the houses in their neighborhood. The main portion of their home did not seriously flood, but the garage flooded, leaving the family’s cars unusable. They also owned a condo on Fort Myers Beach that was entirely destroyed.

“I don’t even think it exists anymore,” she said.

Chlumsky said the hurricane devastated the homes of her friends on Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.

“Their houses are completely destroyed,” she said.

The causeway connecting the island to the mainland collapsed as a result of the storm.

Gable’s family was staying in a rental house across the street because his primary home is under renovation. The hurricane ruined the rental home, leaving about five feet of standing water inside, he said. The storm left a few inches of standing water throughout his primary residence but destroyed the floors that were under renovation. As a result, his family is expecting to stay in a condo for about the next nine months, Gable said.

Even with his mother from Louisiana and his father from Naples, Gable said his family had never lived through such a devastating storm.

“They’ve been through plenty of storms. They’ve lived [in Naples] for like 20 years. They did say this was the worst one they’ve seen,” he said.

In the midst of the tragedy left in the wake of Hurricane Ian, Thompson said the devastation has resulted in unity and empathy both at home and on campus.

“My professors were reaching out to me, my old dorm rectors were reaching out to me, so I think this sense of a family away from family was huge to me there,” she said.  “Who do I fall back on when I can’t get a hold of who I need most? And so I think that was huge for me.”

While her parents’ homes were not rendered uninhabitable by the storm, many in their neighborhoods were, Thompson said. Now, her family has turned its attention to trying to help those who lost everything.

“The biggest thing we’ve been saying as a family is just how lucky we were to get out of this alive and with very little damage compared to a lot of people,” she said.

Thompson has been working with the University to organize a supply drive for schools and families in southwest Florida. The drive would send down items ranging from lightly used athletic gear to clothes and non-perishable foods.

The storm surge nearly covered an entire building in Fort Myers. (Courtesy of Paris Thompson)

As southwest Florida begins its recovery effort, Chlumsky said the national attention cast on her hometown strikes her every day.

“There’s so many people in Fort Myers, it’s a big city. The entire Fort Myers-Naples area encompasses close to a million people,” she said. “But when you start seeing your town all over national news, and you see these TikToks that are going viral, like it just makes it so much more real, in a way.”

Contact Ryan at rpeters5@nd.edu

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