Hurricane Irma: Crumpled car ports, shin-deep water, prayers in East Naples
The morning after Hurricane Irma crushed East Naples, evacuees returned Monday to find endless piles of crumpled car ports, shin-deep water and mobile homes with no walls.
They spent Sunday night, waiting and wondering, as the Category 3 storm made landfall a few short miles south on Marco Island.
The worst hurricane damage in East Naples appears to be concentrated in mobile home and RV parks. The homes in these communities are not designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Larry Donnerstag, 87, waded in boots down the middle of a street in Naples Estates off Rattlesnake-Hammock, returning from an evacuation shelter to the trailer where he has lived for 42 years, and through many storms.
"This is the most horrific thing I've ever seen in this park," Donnerstag said as he rested on the concrete steps under his miraculously intact car port.
At the end of Elmwood Lane in Naples Estates, wall-less trailers exposed rooms with clothes still hanging in closets. An overturned box of photo albums here. A spilled drawer of prescription medication over there. Birds chirped. A generator growled.
Residents milled about in a semi-daze, stopping to ask how each other fared, and moving debris out of the street so cars could pass.
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April McCausland, 68, carried an outside light lampshade she found in a pool of water down the street in the 55-and-over park.
"Today, I feel like I'm 96," McCausland said.
She said she felt lucky that she only had roof damage, but feared for elderly neighbors, many of them uninsured, who lost much more and would have a hard time recovering form Irma's beating.
"All I can say is, 'Let's all help,'" McCausland said. "Start with the person who needs it the most and work our way back."
Donnerstag, who spent Sunday night in a shelter at Lely High School, carried parked his car near the entrance to the park to avoid the flood waters. Without power and only spoiled food, he said he was considering going back to the shelter.
"When I pulled in and saw all that aluminum I said, 'Oh Lord, oh no,'" Donnerstag said.
Richard Nowak stepped through the shin-deep water, surrounded by the wreckage of his East Naples neighborhood, climbed the stairs to his mobile home and opened the door.
Everything inside – his clothes, his porcelain figurines, his antique sewing machine collection – was dry.
“I prayed to God,” Nowak, 86, said Monday morning. “I can’t believe he was this good to me.”
The same couldn’t be said for many of his neighbors in the Holiday Manor mobile home park off Collier Boulevard, south of U.S. 41. The flooded neighborhood was strewn with debris from Hurricane Irma. Panels of aluminum siding and roofing, and chunks of pink insulation were scattered about.
Several of the homes in Holiday Manor and in neighboring parks are likely unlivable.
“This is worse than Wilma, when Wilma came through, and that was bad,” said Nowak, who stayed in a shelter Sunday and plans to live temporarily with his son in Winter Park now. “I see so many places destroyed.”
Arelys Mendoza, 46, drove through a mobile home community next to Holiday Manor mobile home park with her daughter, surveying the damage Monday. Her home was OK, she said, but several of her neighbors’ homes were damaged.
“It’s really sad, but the good thing is we are alive,” she said. “That’s the most important.”
On Isles of Capri, Marietta Cox, 70, and her daughter, Madonna Flores, rode bicycles down Capri Boulevard exploring the relatively minor damage. Some homes had damaged roofs, lanais and pool cages. Several trees were knocked over, blocking portions of the road, and a few power lines were down.
“We were very lucky. Very, very lucky,” said Mendoza, who rode out the storm in her 1-year-old home with hurricane windows and doors.
“It was really scary,” she said of the storm. “The rain was so hard and fast. You could see out the windows, but you couldn’t’ see anything around you. It was like a white-out.”
The scariest part, she said, was when the bay by her house drained during the storm, only to have the water surge back in after the eye had passed.
“It was moving,” Mendoza said of the rushing water. “It came up to your steps.
Across most of East Naples, the biggest issues seemed to be downed trees, localized road flooding and some minor damage to roofs and fences. The roar of chain saws could be heard as residents removed downed trees and branches from their yards.
In Naples Manor, Enrique Padron patched holes in his roof on his home on Broward Street. He and his wife, Carolina Andeliz, rode out the hurricane at a relative’s house in the area.
“Bad, bad, bad,” was how Andeliz described the hurricane. “I got to the point where I started crying. I saw pieces of metal flying. … The power of the winds was really strong.”
But the damage she saw Monday wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected.
“It might be wrong to say happily surprised, but that’s what I am,” she said. “I expected to see half of this area gone.”
For some Irma survivors, tired and without power, the main objective Monday was a hot meal.
On Golden Gate Parkway, a line of people snaked around a shopping center where China Wok was open, cooking with gas.
People passed a hand-written limited menu down the line. The shrimp lo mein caught the attention of Neydy Perez, 34, waiting in line with her daughter, Nikki Garcia, 6.
"We're tired of snacks," Perez said. "We want food."
Charles Pulkownik, who can't afford a phone or a TV, didn't know Irma was on its way. When a sheriff's deputy told him the storm would skirt Naples, Pulkownik, 56, who decided to stay put at his trailer in Naples Estates with his Labradoodle, Cesar.
First, the power went out. Then, his neighborhood started ripping apart. As the eye passed over, he thought it was over. Then, he heard a big bang and ran to the front of his house and saw a coconut palm tree snapped off at the ground and lying across his driveway, blocking his escape route.
"We were good until it came back around (after the eye passed)," Pulkownik said. "I said, 'We're in a little bit of trouble here.'"
He watched a 40-foot piece of metal fly down his street. Then, his carport started to tear. In 15 minutes, it was gone. He said his carport waved in the wind like someone was shaking sand out of a beach blanket.
He had been living in Naples Estates for the past two years, moving from Michigan to live happily ever after in paradise.
"I guess not!" he said, riding off through the floodwaters on his bicycle.