Thousands of homes, apartments still empty in hard-hit Island Park

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

George Mitchell holds a pink dog lead while two-year-old Hazel wags her tail, her bubblegum pink tongue hanging in the air.

"Grandpa's going to get you, just give me a minute," George says while securing the leash to a matching collar around Hazel's neck. "She's really been a service dog for us."

Once leashed, Hazel bursts from the door of the large camping trailer parked in the driveway of the couple's Island Park home.

"She's really been our therapy dog," Maryjane says while coming down the stairs. "At 6 o'clock her parents were knocking on the door and we'll have her until Sunday. She's usually here from 6 (a.m.) until 5 (p.m.), so we have her all day."

Hazel actually belongs to George and Maryjane's neighbor, Phillip McAfee.

But Hazel spends most of her time with the Mitchells, and both say she has helped them weather the past three months.

Hurricane Ian forced more than 7 feet of storm surge onto the Island Park community on Sept. 28, destroying many homes, boats, porches and fences.

Cars were pushed into canals, and boats were washed up and onto homes.

Vehicle strikes again top killerFive things to know about Florida panthers in 2022

The Mitchells' boathouse failed, and their boat fell into the canal and still rests there, with a red sticker that shows the state is taking possession of the vessel.

Storm surge flooded their quaint home, where they've spent nearly five decades. Ian destroyed nearly everything, from Maryjane's $30,000 baby grand piano to journals she's kept since she was in school.

George and Maryjane Mitchell pose with Hazel at their neighborÕs Island Park home in Ft. Myers on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.
George Mitchell open the door of the RV they are living in in the driveway of their Island Park home in Ft. Myers on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.
Maryjane Mitchell pets Hazel, a 2-year-old soft-coated wheaten terrier, at their neighborÕs Island Park home in Ft. Myers on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.
George Mitchell shows items the two were able to salvage at their Island Park home in Ft. Myers on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.

A music teacher in Lee County for 30 years, Maryjane's only remaining instrument is a small plastic player violin that plays Mozart when you turn on the volume nob.

The storm also ruined her classical guitar and various drums and smaller instruments.

"That's my music now," she says of the plastic player violin.

Island Park was hit hard by Ian, and resident and business owner Mike Murphy said he thinks there are more than 3,500 empty homes and apartments in the community, which is north of San Carlos Park and west of U.S. 41.

Weather report:Cold spell over, highs in the 80s again for the next week in Southwest Florida

Debris still litters many of the streets, with some homes boarded up and others looking as though they haven't been touched since Ian made landfall.

Some pontoon boats that were in trees have been moved to trailers, but other boats are still pinned against homes and sideways in canals.

Murphy said the Mitchells are one of the few families he knows that's living at their residence 100% of the time.

"It’s every bit of 50% (of people are not living in their homes), maybe more," said Murphy, owner of Marina Mike's. "A lot of people are living in campers in their front yard. There are about 10 people that have moved back on our street. There's not a lot of activity."

Manatees:Advocates worry warm waters will leave sea cows vulnerable to boat strikes, cold

Murphy said everyone in the Island Park neighborhood needs to remodel at least their first story, if not the roof and even the entire structure, in cases.

"From my house to (U.S.) 41 everyone needs a complete redo, and there are thirty-five hundred homes in my neighborhood," Murphy says.

McAfee, the neighbor and owner of Hazel, has substantially repaired his home, but the Mitchells still need new floors and finishing touches before their place is restored.

There's also some landscaping work to be done, mostly mulching and sodding. Maryjane lost a small ficus during the storm and has since replaced it with another one.

Like many of their treasured items, it had to be replaced. Many of those special items, like the piano and five decades of music notation, will never again be a part of their lives.

The Mitchells are among thousands of Fort Myers area families that were displaced by powerful Category 4 Hurricane Ian.

The storm brought at least 110 mile-per-hour winds and about at least 7 feet of storm surge to the Island Park community.

Water releases:Army Corps says Lake O too high, releases to Caloosahatchee to grow in wake of hurricanes

The water was so high that many residents fled to their attics, which is very dangerous when waters are rising as you can become trapped and drown.

Murphy cut loose and wrangled dozens of people from their homes, and took them back to relative safety in his fishing boat.

Several neighbors credit Murphy with saving dozens of lives.

Toney Wade's life may have been saved by Hurricane Ian itself. A volunteer with the Cajun Navy out of Louisiana, Wade came to Fort Myers within hours of Ian making landfall.

He rode on horseback door-to-door in the aftermath, alerting paramedics and firefighters about people who were in need of rescuing.

Wade saved one man's life by convincing him to let emergency techs treat his infection, which was bordering on gangrene. The man had fallen the day of the storm and cut his forearm. Wade found him six days later.

Wade broke his ribs while working out of the Island Park High School parking lot and had to be transported to the hospital.

"The hospital was worried that I had punctured a lung, so they scanned my body," Wade said. "I guess I was fortunate I broke the ribs because we caught the cancer early, and it’s going to be an easy procedure.

"They found a mass on my bladder and said I had cancer," Wade said.

Wade is scheduled for a relatively simple surgical technique soon that's expected to remove all cancer that was found.

What happened to the man with the infected arm?

"If he wouldn’t have gotten treatment he would have died," Wade says. "We checked on him before I left and he looked a whole a lot better."

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook.