FORT MYERS, Fla. – Danny Ross has at least three lives.
His life was nearly jolted out of him when he was struck by lightning. He came close to taking his last breath after suffering a punctured lung in a car wreck in the ‘80s. It almost washed away aboard a boat where Ross sought shelter from Hurricane Ian.
With his own 30-foot boat destroyed, Ross now lives in the ruins of his neighbors’ 50-foot yacht.
Recovery across southwest Florida continued as the storm’s death toll surpassed triple digits. The Category 4 storm made landfall in southwest Florida last week, wrecking the barrier islands of Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Pine Island.
The storm, initially predicted to hit Tampa, veered east unexpectedly. Those in the storm’s path faced a binary decision: evacuate immediately or stay to shutter up homes and hope for the best. Lee County issued its evacuation order less than 24 hours before winds in excess of 150 mph and a wall of water slammed the region.
Ross had been determined to ride out the storm alone on his 30-foot boat moored in the shadow of a 3-acre spoil island in the middle of the Caloosahatchee River. He curbed his pride, he said, only because of his family’s constant pleading.
“I heard the fear in their voices,” he said.
Other residents at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin offered Ross shelter on their boats. He picked the largest vessel he could find — one owned by a couple in their late 60s, he said.
As the first of Hurricane Ian’s outer bands lashed the coast, the trio – Ross, Ruth and Tony – cracked jokes to cope with their rising fear. They yelled “rogue wave” as surges strengthened, and everyone – Ruth, within reach of her jewelry, and Tony, a catheter bag affixed to his body – agreed; they wouldn’t leave the boat.
“If you’re going to die,” Ross said, “you’d rather be with two other people than by yourself.”
But as the water rose and dock lines snapped, bellowing winds and waves drove the yacht into the steel girders of the nearby Edison Bridge.
“There was a symphony of eerie sounds going on under the bridge. All these sailboats were popping up and down, their masts were rubbing against the concrete,” Ross said. “It was an orchestra.”
The slippery deck made it nearly impossible to reach the topsides of the boat, he said. With damp hands, Ross grabbed at pipes and railings until he managed to pull himself onto the flooded roadway above. Grabbing Ruth by her hair and Tony by his shirt, he hoisted the couple off their battered boat. The trio exchanged high fives and bear hugs as rain pelted their already tear-soaked cheeks.
Off in the distance, a half mile west, the trio set their sights on the recently built Luminary Hotel. In order to get there, they would have to swim.
“Had I drank all day like I did during past hurricane parties, I don’t think we would have made it out alive,” Ross said.
Throngs of marina residents emerged from the diesel-tainted water and took refuge in the hotel’s second-floor lobby, Ross said. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered which neighbor he joined. The storm drove everyone to abandon their vessels.
Amber Bramly and her partner, who had also offered Ross refuge on their boat, fled after water rushed in. They waded across the street and watched as their boat, Idle Time, sank to the bottom. They didn’t know whether Ross or any other liveaboards had survived.
While bailing water from their boat the next day, they looked up to find Ross on the dock above, accompanied by his unmistakable smile – with two missing teeth – and the same red shirt and cargo shorts they last saw him wearing. The clothes on his back are all he has.
Ross hopped onto the deck, which still sat three feet below water, and with the help of high-volume pumps, managed to refloat Bramly’s home.
“People just stopped what they were doing. Everybody was over here trying to help me raise my boat from the dead, and here she is,” she said.
Once restored, Bramly plans to rechristen the boat in honor of everyone in the marina.
Bill Westberry, another resident, spent much of Saturday washing down his boat – which escaped the storm relatively unscathed – surrounded by scraps of his neighbors’ sails, motors and pilings.
“It’s going to take a lot of labor to clean this area, and I don’t know where they’re going to get it,” he said. He suggested the U.S. government offer work visas to foreigners crossing the border to help with the cleanup.
States across the U.S. sent rescue teams, military units and volunteers after Ian cut power to nearly three million Florida residents. After roads were cleared of debris, they were closed again to make way for utility trucks to repair power lines.
“I have a new respect for hurricanes,” Westberry said. “So many of us got complacent.”
The hurricane’s strength was reflected not only in the widespread destruction of buildings and vehicles, but also through small scars in the landscape. The grass path leading to Ross’ makeshift home beneath the bridge is covered in gray sludge, and a sheen of oil reflects from the water’s surface.
Above: Jack Prator reported this story for WUFT-FM.
“There’s still a thousand ways to get hurt in a minute here,” Ross said. His first night alone in the wreckage, an intruder treading on broken glass woke him up. His only defenses were a bottle of rum, held high over his head, and a deep voice.
“If you want to find a Rolex that’s not broken up, there’s nicer boats to go poach, man,” he said.
A weathered captain with hair at his shoulders, Ross thinks it might be time to visit family in New Jersey, but if he goes, he doesn’t intend to stay there for long. Florida’s waters are his home, he said. But he will never ride out another hurricane.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.