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Elderly people who survived Hurricane Ian are faced with a choice: to stay or to go?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The southwestern corner of Florida that was devastated by Hurricane Ian in September had been a popular destination for low- and middle-income retirees. Two-thirds of fatalities from the storm were seniors. NPR's Danielle Kaye met some older survivors in Fort Myers who are now grappling with the decision to repair their homes.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Oh, victory in Jesus.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: In a parking lot surrounded by barren trees, dozens of people gather under a tent. It's Sunday morning at Southwest Baptist Church in Fort Myers. Service has been held outside since Hurricane Ian flooded their building.

ROBERT WALKER: And I really like this church. The members, I mean, are so friendly here. It helps the healing. It really does. This is family.

KAYE: The congregation is about 98% seniors. And for many, like 70-year-old Robert Walker (ph), it provides a comforting rhythm to his life. Walker's home got flooded, and he doesn't have insurance or the means to hire help. He's a retired builder, and he can do the work himself.

WALKER: The bad part is I'm 70. I'm old. And when I was young, this was no big deal. Well, now, you know, work 20 minutes, sit five. It's a big difference.

KAYE: About 30% of the population in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, is age 65 or older. Median household income is about $60,000.

ERIN MCLEOD: 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.

KAYE: Erin McLeod is the CEO of Senior Friendship Centers, a nonprofit that works with nearly 10,000 seniors in southwest Florida. She says that for many, it's too expensive to evacuate. Since the storm hit, they've been helping seniors navigate displacement and delivering food.

MCLEOD: People are 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. We talked to people that were couch surfing or living in their cars.

KAYE: When Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, McLeod says many older adults were unable to rebuild for years. Others moved out of the state.

MARILYN SKINNER: We know that Fort Myers - this area as we knew it, will never be that way again.

KAYE: Marilyn Skinner (ph) is an 86-year-old widow who walks with a cane, a devoted member of Southwest Baptist Church.

SKINNER: Every Friday, we went to Fort Myers Beach for breakfast, and we all walked the beach and we rode the trolley.

KAYE: Now she's 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. Her family wants her back in Indiana, but she's not sure what comes next.

SKINNER: My siblings know that's never going to happen. And my children seem to think they're going to make up my mind for me, but they're not. Not yet.

KAYE: Skinner is fiercely independent, but she knows that at her age, relocating and creating a new community won't be easy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Would you guys like some barbecue?

MARTHA ROTH: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many of you?

MARTHA BUTLER: Martha Butler. I'll be 90 years old. And this is my daughter I live with.

ROTH: I'm Martha Roth, and I'm 72.

KAYE: The two Marthas sit on their front porch waiting for an AC contractor to stop by. Everything is damp inside. Her furniture is piled up. Roth's house was flooded by an eight-foot storm surge. She still doesn't know if there's structural damage, but she says she's not going anywhere.

ROTH: I still have a roof. I don't have as much damage as, say, the guy across the street.

KAYE: Her house is paid off. It's their only housing option. FEMA gave her a check for almost $31,000 for repairs, but it will take more than that to rebuild. Then there's the loss of community. Many of Roth's neighbors aren't coming back.

ROTH: I mean, it's sad. These are friends - 20 years of friends. So you just take one day at a time and one foot forward and six feet back.

KAYE: John Bohannick (ph), who's 79 and lives on Social Security, retired to Pine Island 22 years ago.

JOHN BOHANNICK: It's a beautiful place to live - I mean, the island, the people. At night, you hear the frogs in the trees.

KAYE: He's living in a camper in his front yard. This island, across the bridge from Fort Myers, was among the hardest-hit areas in the region. The storm ripped the roof off of Bohannick's house. He wants to rebuild but was turned down for a loan. He still seems in shock, looking at his unlivable home. His eyes start to well up with tears.

BOHANNICK: It doesn't seem real. Your whole life is gone. So if you'd like to see it...

KAYE: Bohannick leads the way up the shaky wooden stairs to his home.

BOHANNICK: It's physically safe. You're not going to fall through the floor or anything.

KAYE: Inside, furniture is tossed around. A thick layer of black mold is everywhere.

BOHANNICK: This was my bedroom - ceiling gone, closet, roof is gone. Dressers - can't even open the drawers up in there.

KAYE: Bohannick's son signed him up for FEMA. He's not technologically savvy, and registering with FEMA requires computer literacy.

BOHANNICK: I don't use the internet. I don't use a computer. The only thing I have is a cellphone my daughter-in-law bought me a year and a half ago. And it's a job trying to just figure out how to use it.

KAYE: He knows he won't go back home to Chicago, he says, but he grapples with what's next.

BOHANNICK: If it's going to cost more to repair the house than to, you know, build a new one, it'd be foolish to have it repaired. And until I can get contractors out here and start coming up with prices, I can't do anything. But, oh, I'd love to stay here. I mean, it's - you know, it's so peaceful and quiet.

KAYE: Even though his heart is telling him to rebuild, he says his head isn't too sure.

Danielle Kaye, NPR News, Fort Myers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: NPR's Marisa Peñaloza produced this report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.