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Beneath a Fort Myers bridge, a captain longs to return to sea

For four-plus months, hurricane victims pitched tents beneath a bridge. Then they had to go.
 
Published March 8, 2023|Updated March 9, 2023

FORT MYERS BEACH — He wakes when the sun warms his blankets, just before his tent begins to glow. Stretching, the old sea captain unzips the flap.

It’s quiet beneath the bridge, just after dawn. The couple camping across the concrete stopped fighting. The drunken women down the way must have passed out.

John “Capt. Jay” Burki, 76, walks slowly toward the water. He steps over yellow caution tape, climbs crumbling stairs, hobbles to the center of a pier. There, he turns to the east, squints through his phone camera, and captures the sun as it crawls out of Estero Bay.

John "Capt. Jay" Burki ambles underneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge to take his daily sunset photo on Feb. 15 in Fort Myers Beach. He sends sunrises and sunsets to about 50 friends every day.
John "Capt. Jay" Burki ambles underneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge to take his daily sunset photo on Feb. 15 in Fort Myers Beach. He sends sunrises and sunsets to about 50 friends every day. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Every morning, he sends a sunrise to 50 people he calls friends.

Every evening, he turns to the west and texts them a sunset.

It’s a cloudy morning in early February. He has been documenting the days for more than four months. Ever since Hurricane Ian hurled his boat — his home, everything he owns — from the bay into the mangroves. Ever since he moved into a parking space beneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge.

Capt. Jay hasn’t lived on land this long in 30 years, and he longs to be back at sea.

He tries to appreciate his donated bed, the generator someone bought him, coffee in the morning, rum and Coke at night. The sound of waves against the broken docks, the salty taste of the air.

Happiness is not about getting what you want all the time,” he types this morning beneath a photo of the scarlet sky. “It’s about loving what you have and being grateful for it.”

The next day, he sees a Budweiser truck across the lot at Doc Ford’s beach bar. The fabled restaurant has been closed since the storm. Is it about to reopen? Once tourists start returning, will he have to go?

John "Capt. Jay" Burki takes his daily photo of the sunset, which he will pair with an inspirational message as he sends it to a roster of friends. Here, he stands near his camp underneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge.
John "Capt. Jay" Burki takes his daily photo of the sunset, which he will pair with an inspirational message as he sends it to a roster of friends. Here, he stands near his camp underneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Deputies show up a few days later, telling the two dozen people beneath the bridge they’ll have to clear out. Take the tents, the coolers, all they’ve collected since they lost everything.

After more than four months of refuge beneath the bridge, building makeshift homes, deputies give them a week to get out — or go to jail.

• • •

As he tells it, Capt. Jay was one of the first people to stake out a spot below the Fort Myers Beach bridge.

After 150-mph winds ripped through Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, after waves hurled his 37-foot sailboat off its anchors and smashed the hull, after he woke tangled in trees, scratched and battered — Capt. Jay says a Coast Guard helicopter flew him to a shelter.

“Which I walked right out of,” he says. “I can’t live with all those people.”

Carrying the only thing he salvaged, his red backpack with tools and a towel, he hiked west for hours past mountains of bashed vessels, toppled trees and mangled mobile homes, trying to get back to his boat, or at least the water.

The night after the storm, some shrimpers already were sprawled beneath the bridge, beside their broken trawlers. Capt. Jay spread his towel on the dock by Bonita Fish Co. and slept there for a few days.

The bridge is an extension of San Carlos Boulevard, officially State Route 865. Here, it crosses an island tucked between the mainland and the barrier beaches. The parking lot beneath is ringed by a two-lane road called Fisherman’s Wharf, which dead-ends at a pier. Seafood companies and Doc Ford’s sit on one side. A yacht repair shop is on the other. The span shades the slice of pavement, keeps it dry during downpours.

Before the hurricane, people parked trucks there to launch boats. Watermen snoozed in their cars, waiting for work.

Then, in the days after Ian, an elderly couple who had survived in their RV boondocked beneath the bridge. A middle-aged couple with a Labradoodle pitched a tent. A carpenter whose houseboat sank moved there in his SUV.

By Thanksgiving, Capt. Jay had a new tent and a dozen neighbors. By Christmas, he counted three dozen tents and five dogs. After the holidays, after the emergency shelters shuttered, more people poured in.

Two dozen people were still there in February when deputies ordered everyone out.

Some had been sleeping on the beach before the hurricane. Others had been a paycheck away from being on the streets. Many, like Capt. Jay, lived on boats.

Others had lost jobs, apartments, houses. A waitress whose restaurant closed ran out of rent money and bought a tent. An accountant was sleeping nearby in her Jaguar.

Like hundreds of other people holed up in hotels or camping by their crushed homes, everyone under the bridge was waiting: on insurance, Social Security, disability, unemployment, payouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Got a boat? John "Capt. Jay" Burki is searching for a vessel that will let him return to the life of solitude he loves at sea. His boat was destroyed in Hurricane Ian last September.
Got a boat? John "Capt. Jay" Burki is searching for a vessel that will let him return to the life of solitude he loves at sea. His boat was destroyed in Hurricane Ian last September. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Across the bay, some waterfront restaurants have been rebuilt. People are sipping daiquiris on the decks.

But on the land side, beside the bridge, crane operators still struggle to untangle towers of bashed boats, seagulls scavenge in piles of garbage and displaced people pee in paint buckets.

“We’re living in limbo,” says one of Capt. Jay’s neighbors.

Her boyfriend says, “We’re living in hell.”

• • •

Rent vouchers won’t help. There’s hardly anywhere to rent. A trailer won’t work. All the nearby campgrounds have been destroyed.

“People have nowhere to go. We have nowhere to put them,” says Michael Overway, who directs Lee County’s Homeless Coalition. “There are so many newly homeless people, services are completely maxed out.”

Hurricane Ian killed nearly 150 people and leveled an estimated 5,000 houses. Tens of thousands of Floridians turned to the government for help.

FEMA put 4,000 people up in hotels, and approved some 3,400 applications for home repairs, rental assistance and other expenses.

An estimated 34,000 people stayed in emergency shelters, but now all 260 have closed. When one in Collier County shut down, Overway says, 95 people were forced onto the streets.

Five months after the disaster, no one knows how many are still homeless.

Volunteers hike through woods, alongside roads and sand dunes, searching. When they find someone, Overway tells them: Get out of Florida.

“Before the storm, it was hard to find affordable housing,” he says. “Now it’s impossible.” One man on a fixed income saw his rent jump from $275 a month to $1,850.

Overway’s office was getting about 10 calls a day before. Now, his staff is fielding at least 50 from people who want to apply for temporary housing. On a recent week, they talked to 23 single moms living in their cars with their kids.

“We’ve been getting a steady increase in new applicants since the beginning of this year,” he says, since the shelters shuttered. People are blowing through their savings, running out of options.

About 10% of the newly homeless people, he says, lived on boats.

• • •

Four days before the deputies’ deadline, two women visit Capt. Jay’s tent. There’s a room available in a veterans’ home. He can move in right away.

“Thank you,” he says. “But I can’t live like that.”

He can’t take any more gossip, drama, so many people always so close. He craves the solitude of the sea, hunkering down in the hull, letting the waves rock him to sleep. He used to go a week without going ashore.

“I’m a sailor,” he says. “And I’m in a bad way now. … I’ve got to get out of here and get back out there.”

He grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Northeast High, joined the Navy, then served 16 years in the reserves. He got married, had a daughter, divorced, then married and divorced again. And again.

In his several months under the bridge, John "Capt. Jay" Burki has amassed a tent's worth of belongings — and a community, though he longs to be alone at sea.
In his several months under the bridge, John "Capt. Jay" Burki has amassed a tent's worth of belongings — and a community, though he longs to be alone at sea. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

He worked as an electrician, oysterman, fisherman. When he retired, he sold his house and bought a sailboat.

Capt. Jay rode out three hurricanes and dozens of other storms at sea. In 2012, he was moored off Gulfport Beach when Tropical Storm Debby dumped his sailboat onto the sand. The Tampa Bay Times covered the aftermath as he stayed on the crashed Promise for almost a month.

When town officials threatened to break up the vessel, a crowd showed up to shove it back into Boca Ciega Bay.

Capt. Jay said then that he wanted to sail around the world.

Instead, he made it to Fort Myers, where he spent the next decade living on semibroken sloops tethered in Estero Bay.

“I need help finding a 47-foot sailboat or larger,” he wrote on a sign outside his tent. “Rough, otherwise, it doesn’t matter.”

He moves slowly, hunched from an ancient back injury. His yellow-gray hair and beard are sticky with salt spray, his voice raspy from years of cheap cigarettes.

Though he prefers being alone, he shares coffee with his neighbors, lets them charge their phones on his generator, regales them with tall tales of his time at sea.

He hates borrowing money, or even bumming cigarettes. When he does, his neighbors say, he always pays them back.

Donnie Price, 60, also used to live on a sailboat. He rode out the hurricane inland, in his SUV, then parked next to Capt. Jay’s tent in October. Donnie drives him to get mail at the makeshift post office, groceries at the gas station, a public shower when he starts to stink. “I wish someone would donate him some sort of a boat so he can get back to the water and live out his life,” Donnie says. “He’s not really a burden. He’s sort of a legend. But he doesn’t get that he can’t stay here forever.”

Donnie has been repairing carports, roofs and pool screens, saving cash. He plans to crash with a friend until he has a down payment for a new place.

Capt. Jay doesn’t have any savings. Three days before the parking lot will be cleared, he’s down to $4. His $1,752 from Social Security and disability won’t come for two weeks. He’s still hoping for $50,000 for his boat — from insurance or FEMA.

“He’s got to make some choices,” Donnie says. “Or someone’s going to make them for him.”

Even if he finds somewhere to stay, Capt. Jay has no idea how to move what he has amassed: the double bed and dorm fridge, table and chairs, bookcase and boombox, Mozart CDs, fishing poles, the new TV he ordered on Amazon.

With two days to go, he catches a ride to a gas station where he knows the manager. Maybe he could pitch his tent in the parking lot? The guy says he’ll ask the owner.

But Capt. Jay walks the property and changes his mind.

Too far from the water. The Sunoco sign would block the sunrise.

• • •

The morning before Capt. Jay would be evicted, a man who’d been helping people beneath the bridge rented a U-Haul and loaded all of his belongings into the back.

Capt. Jay didn’t know what would happen to his neighbors in the parking lot. As he left, half were still there.

But he’d finally found somewhere to land. At least for now.

A spokesperson for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office did not answer questions by email about what prompted deputies to clear people out. She also did not say whether deputies made arrests or confiscated belongings. She directed a reporter to the Florida Department of Transportation, where a spokesperson has not responded to emailed questions.

Donnie, the carpenter who camped next to Capt. Jay, says deputies issued some trespassing citations and threw away all the tents, coolers, beds under the bridge.

John "Capt. Jay" Burki still looks for inspiration in sunrises and sunsets, even as his view has continued to change in the difficult months since Hurricane Ian.
John "Capt. Jay" Burki still looks for inspiration in sunrises and sunsets, even as his view has continued to change in the difficult months since Hurricane Ian. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The former accountant and her boyfriend drove away in their Jaguar, he says. They’re going to sleep outside a Walmart. The elderly couple in the RV rented a spot behind a strip mall for $500 a month.

Donnie spent a couple of days in a hotel, then Capt. Jay called: Plenty of room here!

His tent is now across from the Gulf of Mexico.

Someone he knows was looking after a lot where a house was crushed. Trees, fences, furniture fill the yard and pool. Capt. Jay says if he cleans the parcel, the guy will let him stay there, amidst the wrecked mansions on Estero Boulevard.

“I’m 50 feet from the shore,” he says. “Almost waterfront.”

Capt. Jay set up a makeshift kitchen, hooked an antenna on his TV, borrowed Donnie’s razor and shaved his scraggly beard.

“I can’t figure out how he got this place,” says Donnie, who parked his SUV on the lot. “There’s nobody around.”

Capt. Jay’s latest photos are from a new perspective.

Instead of standing below the bridge, shooting across the bay, he sits at his new homestead on Fort Myers Beach, capturing palm trees silhouetted against a crimson sky.

• • •

A week later, a photo of Capt. Jay’s camp appears on a talk radio website above a warning: “If you’re living in a tent … you may soon be told to fold it up.”

A Fort Myers Beach council member wants the encampments gone. Not just people who landed there after the storm, he says, but even property owners waiting to rebuild.

Even though so many people still haven’t been paid for their losses.

Even though there’s nowhere to go.

“Some of the people living in the tents don’t look like they’re property owners,” Council member Bill Veach said at a town meeting. “They look like camps outside of some Third World country.”

Commenters attacked the idea of evicting people who had already lost everything.

“Tent, box, van, whatever someone rendered homeless by a hurricane is living in, so what,” one man wrote. “They need shelter, and unless government can do that, the last thing these people need is harassment.”

Donnie is hoping to hang on by Capt. Jay for a few weeks. He’s given up on FEMA money, and he’s almost saved enough to buy an RV. “No more living on the water,” he says.

The old sailor is still yearning for a boat. And a “female companion” to accompany him on his next adventure.

Another day on land comes to an end for John "Capt. Jay" Burki, who hopes above all else to return to life on the water.
Another day on land comes to an end for John "Capt. Jay" Burki, who hopes above all else to return to life on the water. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Maybe he’ll circumnavigate the globe. Or at least make it to Key West.

Until then, he listens to the laughing gulls, smells Folgers brewing on his propane stove, watches the sky begin to brighten above the beach.

Sunday morning and it’s time for coffee as the sun rises in the east across Fort Myers Beach Florida,” he types.

“Where there is a will there was always a way to make your dreams come true!

Hurricane Ian: By the numbers

The Category 4 hurricane killed more than 140 people.

It leveled at least 5,000 homes in Southwest Florida and damaged 30,000 structures.

Coast Guard crews rescued more than 1,000 people and 135 pets.

An estimated 34,000 people filled 260 shelters.

FEMA has approved more than 3,000 applications for homeowners and nearly 400 for renters.

Almost 4,000 people have stayed in FEMA-sponsored hotel rooms.

The agency says more trailers are on the way.