Like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum, Hurricane Wilma screamed her way across Southwest Florida, leaving exhaustion and destruction in her wake. With an eerie howl, Wilma’s winds were met by a cold push from the North and the resulting gale tore down trees, ripped apart homes and destroyed the peaceful end-of-summer days in South Lee County.
But in the wake of her wreckage, what Wilma tore down pales in comparison to what she built: Community. Friendship. Caring.
In the Jamaica Bay neighborhood of South Fort Myers, the threat and reality of Wilma may have weakened structures and toppled trees, but in the process, she strengthened the bond between the residents of this mobile home park off U.S. 41.
“Even as the storm was coming in, people were looking after each other,” said Mary Johnson, a 17-year resident of Jamaica Bay. “After she hit us, though,” Johnson added, “was when everyone really pitched in like a big family.”
Johnson, 85, was one of the lucky ones. Her house, tucked into a corner and protected by the larger homes around hers, escaped serious damage.
“I thought the water was going to come all the way up to the house,” she said, pointing to the overflowing canal that runs along the back side of her property, “during the height of this thing, the water was up into the lawn.”
Her next-door-neighbors, the Inglesbees, were not so fortunate. The roof of their well-kept mobile home was rolled back like the top on an old-fashioned sardine can and dropped into the canal that borders the south side of the community. Roofs and screened in porches were common victims to the rush of Wilma’s winds.
Linda Ebsworth rode out Hurricane Charley in her Jamaica Bay home last year, and decided to evacuate a little bit north for Wilma. Taking refuge at the Comfort Inn on U. S. 41, Ebsworth watched the water ebb under the door of the hotel Monday morning and wondered how her home was faring. Returning to her home after the hurricane moved east, she found pieces of her porch scattered south along the street and the roof of her carport dangled from her next-door-neighbors roof.
“I’m just so thankful we have a home still,” she said as she cleaned up limbs and debris from her yard last week. “So many others lost a whole lot more than we did.”
Despite the destruction, Ebsworth, like most other residents of this community, has no plans to leave the area.
“I’m thinking of moving into a condo or something more secure, but I love it here. We’re not leaving,” said Ebsworth.
“I came down to paradise when I moved here so long ago,” agreed Johnson, “and I’ve been glad I did every since.”
George Juhl, long-time resident of Jamaica Bay and volunteer handyman for the community, spent the days following Wilma traveling the debris-strewn streets in his golf cart, helping out where he could.
“I’ve been busy busy,” he said as he finished patching up the holes left in Virginia Lovejoy’s roof, “like the little Dutchman with his finger in the dike,” he added with a grin.
Juhl said Hurricane Charley destroyed 12 homes completely last year, and the count was only five so far that were unlivable due to Wilma.
Juhl, like Ebsworth and Johnson, has no plans to pack up and leave. “Even though it’s a little messy today,” he said, “it is still paradise.”
Part of what makes it paradise, according to many in Jamaica Bay, is the sense of community that was only made stronger by adversity.
“The majority of people are pitching together,” said Juhl, “ you’ll see a group of people together with a barbecue going, or helping a neighbor patch up their porch.”
Throughout the hurricane-tossed streets of this neighborhood, people were reaching out to each other, offering help, comfort and companionship as they tried to piece together the scattered bits and pieces of their lives in the darkened aftermath of Wilma.
The management of Jamaica Bay stepped up to the challenge, providing grills and a generator, and helping to provide cooked meals to the residents from the community clubhouse.
“Every meal there is a gang of people up here at the center,” said resident Steve Lockerman. “You’re talking about people that have medical problems, health problems, and now electrical problems. It hits pretty hard, and having a place to be with other people and food to eat helps a lot.”
Food was in abundant supply at the clubhouse as people brought items from freezers that were slowly losing their chill. Stored in coolers powered by the Jamaica Bay generator, cooked by local residents, the food that would have been wasted became the center of the rebuilding community. People gathered together to eat, compare Wilma stories, console and educate each other, and to provide comfort for those who struggled with the losses of the storm.
Martha Rappatone, eight-year and second generation resident of Jamaica Bay, found comfort and purpose in pitching in at the clubhouse, helping to prepare meals for residents and workers. She explained that Norie Court, where she lives, did not get hit very hard by the winds, so most of the residents of that small street were helping out in the makeshift kitchen.
“We are feeding the Jamaica Bay workers first so they can get back out there and continue the great job they are doing patching everyone up,” she said. She commended the management of Jamaica Bay on their response, saying that they were doing everything they could to help return life to normal.
“Normal may take a while to achieve,” said resident Mike Kingery, “but we’re feeding people, were pulling together as a community, and people are starting to come out of their homes and out of the shock."
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(Contact Staff Writer Jessica Waters at 213-6048 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)