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Lee County beachfront resident compares Hurricane Ian experience to horror movie

Many said they didn’t ride out the storm in their waterfront mansions by choice. By the time they knew Ian had changed course, there wasn’t time to leave.
Julie Walton hugs her granddaughter, Nyah VanHoose, in front of the house where they rode out Hurricane Ian, Thursday in Bonita Springs.
Julie Walton hugs her granddaughter, Nyah VanHoose, in front of the house where they rode out Hurricane Ian, Thursday in Bonita Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 30|Updated Sep. 30

BONITA SPRINGS — A linen couch. A Vitamix blender. A teddy bear and a full gallon of Arnold Palmer Iced Tea. A Peloton. A race car and a Rolls Royce.

The everyday items of the people who live along Bonita Beach now sit unclaimed and half-buried in the powdery white sands along the shoreline.

Many residents were home to watch their belongings float out toward the Gulf of Mexico. And if they weren’t, they had to get through a battalion of law enforcement checkpoints if they wanted to return Thursday.

At the far end of the beachfront community there was a gas leak, and the multimillion-dollar homes stood crumbling to the ground. The streets, sidewalks and lawns were buried under at least two feet of wet sand and covered in a lattice of downed power lines.

Mike Walton surveys the damage done to his vintage cars, worth over $600,000, after storm surge from Hurricane Ian pushed them out of the garage, Thursday in Bonita Springs.
Mike Walton surveys the damage done to his vintage cars, worth over $600,000, after storm surge from Hurricane Ian pushed them out of the garage, Thursday in Bonita Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Many in the ritzy island enclave of Little Hickory Island said they didn’t ride out the storm in waterfront mansions by choice. By the time they knew Hurricane Ian was heading their way, there wasn’t time to leave.

It was Tuesday morning when Lee County first issued evacuation orders for all of Zone A, and those orders weren’t considered “mandatory” until early that evening.

Standing outside the gutted, three-story home he and his wife built two years ago, Greg Stout said the first clue he and his wife Rachel had that Ian wouldn’t be heading to Tampa as planned was when they noticed there weren’t any birds in the sky.

That night, it looked like something from a horror film — like horrific Hollywood tsunami footage except, in this case, the waves just kept coming, he said.

”This house is like a fortress,” Stout said. “Concrete and steel, hurricane windows that are basically bulletproof, but even with all of the best security you can get against a hurricane, they still tell you your home should withstand a Category 5 hurricane for five hours. And this was a lot longer than five hours.”

Down the street, Natiri Walton said she had evacuated from her dorm at the University of Tampa to her grandparents’ seaside fortress on Hickory Boulevard. Mike and Julie Walton played host to their children, their kids’ spouses and the couple’s 10 grandchildren as Ian pummeled away at the bottom levels of their home.

Aerial view of sand inundation caused by storm surge from Hurricane Ian on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 in Bonita Beach.
Aerial view of sand inundation caused by storm surge from Hurricane Ian on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 in Bonita Beach. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Covered in sand and sweat, Natiri Walton laughed as she told her mom that, in a brief moment of cellphone connectivity, she learned that classes will resume Monday morning.

Mike Walton said he only managed to relocate two of his four beloved classic cars to higher ground before the storm struck. He had hoped the remaining two vehicles — a fire-engine red 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and a showstopping orange 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird — would be safe inside his concrete garage. But in the morning, the family awoke to find both vehicles, valued at more than $600,000, washed out of the garage and onto the sandy beach that was once their front lawn – overturned and dented, but at least they didn’t go too far.

Julie Walton had to fight back tears as she watched her grandchildren gather the little pieces of her home into a big pile in the front yard. She wasn’t crying for the stuff, she said.

”I can’t even think about what could have happened last night,” she said. “Our whole family, all of our grandkids, could have been washed away.”

By Thursday evening, all of Bonita Springs remained under a 6 p.m. curfew and a boil water notice. For many, the question of restoring power was little more than a pipe dream. The main roadway to Sanibel Island had been completely washed away and there were rumors the airport in Fort Myers, where many who have homes on Hickory Boulevard keep their private jets, won’t reopen until the second week of October at the earliest.

Coast Guard helicopters flew strikingly low overhead and convoys of water rescue vehicles and large trailers toting airboats could be seen.

The Stapleton family is seen walking along Hickory Boulevard after Hurricane Ian destroyed their home, Thursday in Bonita Springs.
The Stapleton family is seen walking along Hickory Boulevard after Hurricane Ian destroyed their home, Thursday in Bonita Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But while many lost everything, there were little moments of victory, shared in laughter between neighbors, that rung out through the eerily deserted wasteland that was once a real estate rubbernecker’s dream. One of the neighbors, known for enjoying his larger-than-life collection of fine scotch on the beach at sunset, said he couldn’t help but laugh when the morning light revealed his hundreds of bottles of alcohol — now strewn across the front yard.

One of the Waltons’ grandsons managed to find his grandfather’s missing garden hose in the miles of debris lining the beach. Nobody knew who owned the green race car that suddenly appeared in a home under construction. As the neighbors surveyed all of the damage left behind in the aftermath of the hurricane, Greg and Rachel Stout couldn’t help but notice all the birds were coming back home.

A Rolls Royce is seen among the debris left behind by storm surge from Hurricane Ian, Thursday in Bonita Springs.
A Rolls Royce is seen among the debris left behind by storm surge from Hurricane Ian, Thursday in Bonita Springs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath

WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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