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How to survive a catastrophic hurricane in a Florida trailer park

One of the deadliest storms to ever hit the United States made landfall in Southwest Florida last month and profoundly changed the lives of thousands. This is how one trailer park endured.

FORT MYERS, Fla. (CN) — Robert Kanehl, 81 years old and weighing 127 pounds wet, ambles around his trailer lot, pointing to the aluminum siding from blown roofs strewn across the lawn, picking up the smaller pieces and leaning the debris against his home. Kanehl has lived in this single-wide mobile home for more than a decade, just a roof over his head, that now has no door, no windows, no running water and no electricity, which in the subtropic heat and humidity is turning his jeans black and his white undershirt gray.

“It was the most fun I’ve had in years!” Kanehl says, cracking a beer.

Lesson one: Keep a sense of humor.

After one of the quietest storm seasons in recent memory, Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwest coast two weeks ago, devastating cities and towns around the Fort Myers metropolitan area. A few miles west of this trailer park, across the damaged causeway that used to bring tourists to white sugar sand beaches and picture-perfect sunsets, residents still cannot access their homes.

The deaths caused by Hurricane Ian surpass more than 100 lives. In communities like Pine Island and the villages on the island of Sanibel-Captiva, first responders still search for bodies. These barrier islands faced the fury of 150 mph winds and storm surges topping 12 feet. Drone footage shows only foundations in some areas and parts of neighborhoods literally washed away into the ocean.

In the days after the storm, Governor Ron DeSantis and local officials in Lee and Charlotte counties faced sharp criticism about late evacuation orders. Forecasters initially predicted Hurricane Ian to slam into the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. Then, less than 24 hours later, following the infamous storm chaser and meteorologist Jim Contore, landfall was projected to hit 40 miles south in Sarasota County. But the storm, gaining intensity in the record-breaking warm Gulf of Mexico waters, quickly veered into the Fort Myers area, seemingly without warning.

Around this small trailer park of two dozen lots, most folks will admit it took them by surprise.

Rob Noble, 58, looks up from his recliner, positioned near the front door of his trailer, just a couple homes down from Kanehl.

“But once we knew, what would we do?” Noble says in a thick Georgia accent. “Most of us don’t have cars. We were in it to win it.”

Rob Noble, a retired firefighter, explains why he did not leave his mobile home as Hurricane Ian approached. (Alex Pickett/Courthouse News Service)

Noble, a retired firefighter with the Fort Myers Fire Department, rolls his eyes when asked about the accusations against the governor and local officials for not pushing evacuation orders earlier or more forcefully.

“Listen, I was a firefighter, right here, for most of my adult life,” Noble says. “We did checks on people in storms past. The sheriff’s [deputies] came by, but once we knew [the storm was coming], we didn’t have a choice.”

A few doors down, Christine Baker cradles her tiny 17-year-old chihuahua, Cacao.

“I’ve lived here for five years,” Baker says in a Brazilian accent. “The last hurricane [Irma in 2017] — everyone here left and they were caught in the middle of the state. This time, we stayed.”

Most people in this 55-plus community do not have a car. Many have health problems. They live here not for convenience but necessity, she explains.

Lesson two: Leave early or don’t leave at all. And don’t blame the forecasters.

Baker’s trailer, which lost most of its siding, is filled with watercolor canvas paintings of seaside sunsets and boats from various countries. Water stains line the living room.

Christine Baker cradles her chihuahua Cacao while recounting how Hurricane Ian shook her mobile home. (Alex Pickett/Courthouse News Service)

“And you know before it even hit, I heard this sound,” the 59-year-old says, lowering her voice. “Ooooooo. That’s how it sounded. Like a ghost.”

She puts her tiny dog on the floor.

“My house started swaying,” she says, describing the storm. “I was so scared. So I went to Robert’s.”

He’s sitting on the couch next to her, sipping a glass of cheap whiskey, and laughs.

“No, really,” she says drawing out the last word. “The wind went this way. And then it went that way.”

“We sat in his doorway and watched our neighbor’s roof fly by.”

She takes a moment.

“It was a … unique … experience,” she says.

When asked about whose roof flew by, Kanehl points his finger and says, “The park over there.”

Indeed, just 100 yards away in another trailer park community, mobile homes similar to Kanehl’s crumpled under the Category 4 winds.

“We’re not lucky,” Kanehl says, shooting a sharp look. “We just didn’t get the flooding.”

Sunset over a Fort Myers trailer park. (Alex Pickett/Courthouse News Service)

Lesson three (and perhaps the most important one): You can hide from the wind, but you can’t hide from the water.

A few hours later, before sunset, a Red Cross van cruises down the park’s main roadway and parks. Judging by the immediate crowd that queued by the van, these volunteers have been here before.

On this day, volunteers hand out styrofaom containers filled with a serving of corned beef and macaroni and a defrosted vegetable medley on the side.

A tall man, sans most teeth and wearing a bright green “I’m Lucky” T-shirt, grabs his food and heads toward his trailer.

“What did I do?” he says when asked about the storm. “I played the Doors’ “Riders of the Storm” over and over. It was wild man.”

Noble, the retired firefighter, put his food container on a walker and strolled back to his trailer.

“You know what people say, ‘Another day in paradise?’ It’s true. But you have to take the good with the bad.”

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