FORT MYERS, Fla. — In a parking lot in Fort Myers surrounded by barren trees, dozens of people gather under a white tent. It's a sunny, breezy Sunday morning at Southwest Baptist Church.
Service has been held outside since Hurricane Ian flooded their building in late September. The congregation, which is about 98 percent seniors, provides a comforting life rhythm for its members, with Bingo Nights and Bible studies. Robert Walker said he tried a few churches before settling here at Southwest Baptist.
"I really like the church. It helps the healing. It really does," Walker said. "This is family."
Walker's home got flooded. He doesn't have insurance or the means to hire help, but he's a retired builder and can use his tools and skills to do the work himself.
"The bad part is I'm 70 – I'm old," Walker said. "When I was young, this was no big deal. Well, now, I work 20 minutes, sit 5. It's a big difference."
Bob Kasten, 79, the pastor at Southwest Baptist, said that despite severe flood damage to the church, a group of about 25 parishioners gathered to pray the Sunday after Ian made landfall in September.
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"These people need each other, you could just tell," he said, emphasizing that a sense of belonging is important to the elderly. "There is a lot of connection in this church, it has become a very caring and loving church."
Kasten has been pastoring at this church for the last 30 years. He said his parishioners – many in their 70s, 80s and even in their 90s – put so much into choosing and setting up their retirement homes when they first moved here. But now, he said many are questioning whether they have the means, energy and years left to rebuild.
Two-thirds of hurricane deaths were seniors
Hurricane Ian killed 137 people after it hit Southwest Florida in September. Two-thirds of those who died were seniors.
For decades, the area has been a magnet for retirees in search of sunshine and community – not only for those able to afford exclusive gated communities, but for those on fixed incomes as well.
About 30 percent of the population in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, is age 65 or older. The median household income in the county is about $60,000.
Now, many are faced with a wrenching reality: At their age, rebuilding the life they loved pre-hurricane in Southwest Florida may not be an option.
Erin McLeod is the CEO of Senior Friendship Centers, a nonprofit that works with nearly 10,000 seniors in southwest Florida. Since the storm hit, her organization has been delivering food and helping them navigate displacement. For many people, it's too expensive to evacuate, she said.
"Seniors were impacted to a large degree because of their inability to be mobile, their isolation, they live on their own, their inability to evacuate," McLeod said, adding that people are now starting from scratch. "There are a good number of folks that are on fixed incomes that are going to pack up and leave the state."
Some seniors are couch surfing or living in their cars, McLeod said. She recalled that when Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, many older adults were unable to rebuild for years, while others moved out of the state.
As many leave, those who stay grapple with loss of community
Marlyn Skinner, an 86 year-old widow who walks with a cane and is a devoted member of Southwest Baptist Church, said that before Hurricane Ian, she and her friends would take the trolley to the beach, have breakfast and walk along the water every weekend.
But the Fort Myers area, she said, "will never be that way again."
Now, Skinner is in real estate limbo, waiting to see if her severely damaged house can be fixed. But she's made up her mind: she's not staying in Fort Myers.
Skinner and her husband first came to Florida as snowbirds about 30 years ago. Uprooting her life is harder now because after her husband passed in 2012, she settled into a routine and community, she said.
"I had the girls over for meals," she said, referring to the life-long friends she's made in Fort Myers.
Skinner is currently living with one of her granddaughters in nearby Naples, and though she feels a sense of purpose helping care for two great-grandchildren, ages 11 and 13, "I can't bring my friends here," she said. She misses her old life.
Skinner is fiercely independent. She knows, however, that at her age, relocating and creating a new community will be a big change.
Her family in Indiana also wants her back, though she's not sure what comes next.
"My siblings know that's never going to happen," she said, "and my children seem to think they're going to make up my mind for me. But they're not. Not yet."
Martha Roth, 72, and her mother Martha Byler, 90, sit on their front porch waiting for an air conditioning contractor to stop by. Everything is damp inside their house – the furniture is piled up, the carpeting is ripped off the floor.
Roth's house, in a seniors mobile park where grandchildren are allowed to visit 2 weeks a year, was flooded by an eight-foot storm surge. Despite the damage, she said she's not going anywhere.
"I still have a roof," Roth said. "I don't have as much damage as, say, the guy across the street."
But she still doesn't know if there's structural damage. The house hasn't been inspected.
Her house is paid off – it's the only housing option the mother-daughter have, which is especially important because of the affordable housing crisis in Florida and around the country.
FEMA has already given Roth a check for almost $31,000 for repairs, but it will take more than that to rebuild. She said she's waiting to get a second check from the government.
Then, there's the loss of community. Many of Roth's neighbors aren't coming back.
"It's sad. These are friends – 20 years of friends," Roth said. "So you just take one day at a time – one foot forward and six feet back."
Seniors wait for funding while navigating an uncertain future
John Bohanek, 79, who lives on Social Security, retired to Pine Island – across the bridge from Fort Myers – 22 years ago. He loves the island, both the people and nature.
"At night, you hear the frogs and the trees — that's all you hear," Bohanek said.
Pine Island was among the hardest-hit areas in the region. The storm ripped the roof off of Bohanek's house. He's now living in a camper in his front yard. He said he wants to rebuild – but was turned down for a loan because he makes insufficient income.
Gazing up at his unlivable home, Bohanek's eyes start to well up with tears.
"It doesn't seem real. Your whole life is gone," Bohanek said.
Inside, furniture is tossed around and a thick layer of black mold lines the walls. The roof above his bedroom is completely blown off.
Bohanek's son in Chicago signed him up for FEMA aid. Bohanek said he's not technologically savvy.
"I don't use the internet, I don't use a computer," he said. "The only thing I have is a cell phone my daughter-in-law bought me a year ago, and it's a job trying to figure out how to use it."
This complicates matters, because registering with FEMA, and other disaster resources, requires computer literacy.
He knows he won't go back home to Chicago, he said, but he grapples with what comes next. Even though his heart is telling him to rebuild, his head isn't too sure.
"If it's going to cost more to repair the house than to build a new one, it'd be foolish to have it repaired," he said. He needs to figure out how much it will cost to rebuild.
But then his heart kicks in.
"I'd love to stay here – it's so peaceful and quiet," Bohanek said, almost in a whisper.
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