Hurricane Ian survivor in Naples: 'We will never come back to Florida'

Three moments still haunt Hurricane Ian survivor Daniela Shtereva.

The first moment: When she saw the water begin to rise on Rivard Road, where she lives with her father.

Her neighborhood had weathered Hurricane Irma totally dry, and Shtereva was operating on that memory, despite warnings high tide was going to make this storm very different. She remembers her mild panic: "I thought, 'Uh-oh.'"

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Like buckets from 'Sorcer's Apprentice' water kept coming

The next seminal moment involved duct tape. Shtereva began plastering it over her doors and windows, including the garage door into the kitchen. And still the water rose. It seeped into the garage where the professional violinist - a member of the Naples Philharmonic, an instructor at The Community School of Naples and a private teacher - had music stored.

The sandbags she had piled against the garage door - "Useless," she declared. The water sloshed in relentlessly, while she and her father, who only speaks their native Bulgarian, tried to stay a step ahead of its grasp, piling things on countertops where the flood would eventually crest. It began coming into her floor-length windows, into the bedrooms, the bathroom. She knew they had to get out.

The third moment was the Shterevas' longest journey ever. It began in the bedroom where, by some miracle of a recent challenge with an air conditioning compressor, she had left a stepstool - to the roof of her home.

She and her father, Georgi, carried the ladder to the front door and tried to pull it open. But the pressure between the water in the house and the water outside held it fast. By the time they yanked it open, they were wading in chest-deep water to where they could get to the top of a heavily pruned shrub - "Again, another miracle. We had just had that pruned" - and use its main trunk as a step from which to wriggle onto the roof.

Whole household belongings are piled up on Woodside Ave.
Whole household belongings are piled up on Woodside Ave.  

Shtereva stowed her two cats, Pepi and Kalina, in the attic with a bounty of food, grabbed their passports, hers American and her father's Bulgarian. Her violin went on the highest shelf possible, with misgivings; she would wade back in to get it before she was rescued.

"What was worse: To have the violin get wet in the rain or have no violin at all?" she said with a sigh, recalling her dilemma.

Her calls to 911 got through. But Shtereva recalled being told operations would not begin until the wind had died down below tropical storm strength wind - 39 miles an hour about 3 p.m.

Street curbs throughout East Naples and coastal Collier are piled high with furniture, carpets, appliances, and other belongings that were ruined after a storm surge up to four feet in areas roared ashore when Hurricane Ian hit Sept. 28, 2022. (By Liz Freeman/Staff writer)
Street curbs throughout East Naples and coastal Collier are piled high with furniture, carpets, appliances, and other belongings that were ruined after a storm surge up to four feet in areas roared ashore when Hurricane Ian hit Sept. 28, 2022. (By Liz Freeman/Staff writer)  

Huddling during the storm

For close to two hours, the pair huddled in the storm, until a neighbor with a stepladder brought them down as the water receded. Then a county rescue operations boat came buzzing down what was now Rivard River at about 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Shtereva's front yard was a vast pile of furniture and drywall. The bottom shelf of precious chamber music she had stored in her garage looked like wilted lettuce. A Steinway baby grand, her household's prize possession, took in water over the keyboard. The kitchen range, which began smoking as the water infiltrated it, and her refrigerator, both soaked to cabinet height. But she mourns the piano loss more.

"Another contribution to Ian," she said wryly. Still, Shtereva ends a tour of her chaotic home smiling. She and her father are safe; the cats are safe; she has her violin.

"In all my life, I've never seen such an outpouring of love and help from family, friends, even total strangers," she declared. "Everyone has been amazing."

Intense, surreal view

For artist Nick Rapp, the second story view from the building known as the Gardenia House on Bayshore Drive was taking in a "very intense and surreal" horizon as Bayshore Drive, the city's official Arts District, became an angry lake.

"(I) Even had a rescue mission to pull an older disabled man through his window, or else I feel like he would have died," he said in a sober email describing the storm.

"If I didn't tie my paddle board up for emergencies. ... if I never would have paddled out to assist people and make sure they were safe to cross, welcome them to our place... and find out about this man trapped in his place ... who knows what his fate would have been," he wrote.

But Rapp, the consummate artist, spent part of his weekend painting murals over the discarded plywood storm shutters. On one blooms a huge dahlia, with a sentence that reflects his optimism: "It will grow back."

Artist Nick Rapp turned trash and discarded plywood shutters into pop-up art.
Artist Nick Rapp turned trash and discarded plywood shutters into pop-up art.  

Ian victims: I hate Florida; I love Florida

Lacey Swander is done with Florida.

Losing everything after Hurricane Irma five years ago was a starting point. Being wiped out again from Hurricane Ian is the last straw.

"We are leaving," Swander, 24, said. "Seeing everything obliterated, it is not OK. I can't see it anymore."

She and her husband, Nick, and their son, Oliver, live - or should say lived - in an apartment at 1555 Blue Point Ave. in Oyster Bay on the eastern edge of the city of Naples.

Since Ian, they started squatting in an empty unit on the second floor. That sure wasn't going to last long.

What's unknown is how many in coastal Collier east and parts of south of U.S. 41 have lost everything dear to them from the four foot of storm surge with the shared sentiment they have never seen anything like it before. Many in East Naples have lived in their neighborhoods for decades.

Collier government officials haven't released any estimates of how many are displaced with their homes uninhabitable or livable with ripped out drywall, beach chairs and folding tables for furniture, blow-up mattresses for beds. Royal Harbor, Oyster Bay and Bayshore all have truck-deep mounds of household detritus along them.

When the water began rushing down the street and pushed into their ground-floor apartment to roughly four feet, Nick and Lacey Swander grabbed what they could and went to a neighbor's place on the second floor.

"I thought the whole building was going to come down," she said.

She feared her family would perish. There's no question in both of their minds they are leaving even though she grew up in Fort Myers.

"We will never come back to Florida," Nick Swander said.

It's sentiment that may be going through a lot of people's minds right now since Ian decimated Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, and Pine Island as a Category 4 storm.

Collier residents know they were spared the worst and there is some semblance of normalcy returning to their community while huge numbers in Lee have long way to go before there's a glimmer of that in their overturned lives.

'I don't want to rebuild'

Wes Thrasher, 62, has lived at 2135 Andrew Ave. at the south end of Bayshore Drive near the Naples Botanical Garden for 21 years. He had at least three feet of water in his home.

He blames the 230 homes going in at the end of Bayshore by Isles of Collier Preserve, where truck load after truck load of fill was brought in to elevate the low-lying area that had been swampland.

"We are sitting in a bowl right now," he said. "We've never had this problem before."

He figures his house is totaled, and he's fine with that. Rebuilding would take too long.

"I don't want to rebuild," he said.

'I didn't expect it to get this high'

Marianne Lambertson, 52, moved into 3128 Woodside Ave., also off south Bayshore, this past summer in one of the newer homes built in 2018 that is more elevated than the older properties in the area.

"It wasn't high enough," she said, estimating the storm surge was four feet on the street and she got an inch of water inside her home. "I really didn't expect it to get this high."

On Pine Street off U.S. 41 S., Marcelino Mendoza tried to stay in a duplex he's lived for at least four years with two other roommates.

"The other guys decided to leave," he said, acknowledging later he also should have left.

He put a piece of plywood across the front door thinking it could slow down the water rushing inside. That was futile, he quickly learned. He grabbed a stick to help swim his way out when the water came up chest high.

A man in a stilt house nearby, who Mendoza said he never met before, saw him and yelled out for Mendoza to get to his house.

Once he got to the stilt house, Mendoza saw he was one of several offered a safe refuge until the water receded. That's when others at the house said an alligator had been spotted in the murky water about half a block away.

Mendoza hopes his landlord will be repair the interior damage to his duplex and allow him to stay in the meantime. He likes the area and its close to bus lines.

Cheney Labor, who was born and raised in Collier County, remains upbeat about Southwest Florida even though a property he bought at 2918 Poplar St. in East Naples, near Bayshore Drive, took in several feet of water. He had been remodeling it to be a rental unit and now he has to start over again.

"This is the price you pay for living in Florida," Labor, 48, said. "Every couple of years, right? I'll take this over snow any day."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-253-8936.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Deadly waters roared Hurricane Ian's wrath in East Naples, Bayshore Art District


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