PUNTA GORDA — Christopher Smith, paralyzed from the waist down two weeks earlier from cancer choking his spine, wanted to die at home.
He would not evacuate from his 1909 craftsman home two blocks away from the Peace River. He did not want his wife to be cleaning him up in front of strangers in a shelter.
So Renee Smith put a life preserver over his head and zip-tied a tarp over his hospital bed like a tent in their living room. She cushioned their stained glass windows with FedEx cardboard, pillows and garbage bags. She cursed at him for making her stay there, then she poured a glass of port and hid under the kitchen table.
”You put all these crazy things out of your brain for survival,” said Renee Smith, 60. “You can feel the house shaking from under the house.”
For eight hours, Hurricane Ian’s 100 mph winds whipped the Smiths’ home. Just when they thought it was over, the sky went black. Christopher Smith gripped his bed railings so hard they left bruises on his hands around his do-not-resuscitate bracelet.
”I couldn’t do anything except sit here and look out the window until it got too dark and couldn’t see anything,” said Christopher Smith, 72. “But we made it through, and we’re lucky for that.”
The Smiths were in better spirits Friday, when Jim Cantore of Weather Channel fame saw Renee Smith barricading the door with her husband’s wheelchair. Cantore came by that morning with a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, muffins and hot tea.
Christopher Smith hasn’t had a moment to think about it too much.
”I’m so glad to be alive.”
Around the Smiths’ home, power lines were dragged down by fallen palm trees. Street signs were mangled, traffic lights tangled, dangling from the lack of slack.
Condos on the waterfront were dotted with area rugs wrung out, hung out to dry over the railings. Metal roofs peeled off and shingles were scattered. Pool and balcony shades were tattered if not missing.
Hurricane Ian might’ve just passed, but Hurricane Charley was top of mind for the Smiths and their neighbors in Punta Gorda. The 2004 Category 4 storm wrecked the once-dull seaside town, causing $15.1 billion in damage, but also birthed redevelopment.
The Smiths’ oak and royal palm trees may have survived Charley, but not Ian.
”We went through Charley, but Charley was little,” said Renee Smith.
”It was horrific,” Christopher Smith said. “It was a lot worse than Charley. It was a lot longer. It was a lot harder.”
Two weeks ago, Christopher Smith was walking around, driving to work as a set designer for the Charlotte Players theater group, where all the kids call him Mr. Smith.
Then, his back started hurting. He thought it might be kidney stones, since his kidneys were infected from the prostate cancer he was diagnosed with 4½ years ago.
Instead, doctors found a mass growing around his spine. A nerve got attached.
”Four days later, I was paralyzed,” Christopher Smith said. “I could deal with the cancer. I could come to grips with that. I’m not quite there on paralysis.”
He was supposed to have radiation on Tuesday. But that was canceled due to the threatening storm, even though it was a beautiful day.
In the past, Christopher was the band photographer for Aerosmith. He’s childhood best friends with frontman Steven Tyler, the godfather to their 22-year-old daughter, Isabella.
Renee Smith was a costume designer and horticulturist, a self-described wild young woman who moved into the vacant home her husband bought for them 26 years ago.
It was all taupe inside until Christopher’s earlier cancer diagnosis. They visited their daughter in Nashville and saw colorful buildings. They painted their sun room blue and their living room pink and filled it with art and antiques and collectibles from torn down houses.
”We needed the joy,” Renee said.
Renee is now a caretaker for her husband and eight traumatized long-haired rescue cats she fosters from senior citizens who have died. She’s sold 1,183 pies to put their daughter through college in Nashville.
”Now, another hurricane,” she said. “We already had Charley.”
Now, their chimney is gone. So is the upstairs air conditioning unit.
Two front-porch fans crashed to the ground. The front door, original to the house, doesn’t shut like it used to. The oak tree and royal palm that survived Charley are in the neighbor’s yard. Styrofoam crown molding from a nearby hotel came to rest in the side yard.
Downed branches formed a nest around their home. When Renee finally ventured outside, she saw a two-foot-tall bald eagle perched.
With a broken left arm, Renee picked up fallen debris from the sidewalk so when the ambulance operators eventually pulls up for Christopher’s radiation, they have a clear path.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
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.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.