Voices: In Venice, Florida, we have no power, no clean water and no gas. My political opinions have changed

A sign for free food and water in Fort Myers Beach on Sunday (AFP via Getty Images)
A sign for free food and water in Fort Myers Beach on Sunday (AFP via Getty Images)

I moved to Venice, Florida from New York earlier this year to be with my mother after my father died. My parents chose Venice for its beauty and affordability when they retired 10 years ago. The neighborhood is in classic Gulf Coast style: a small, gated community with cookie-cutter stucco houses filled with older couples who made the same retirement choice my mom and dad did.

My politics are well-known to my new neighbors. They fly Trump flags and sport “Let’s go Brandon” bumper stickers, while I grow organic beets under the palm trees and listen to NPR all day. In normal times, they chuckle at me as I charge my electronics with foldable solar panels and I giggle to myself when I hear NASCAR blaring from their TVs.

We are cordial to one another. We stop and chit-chat about the weather when our dogs meet on the otherwise empty streets. We are polite. And every now and again one of them will rib me about “Sleepy Joe” Biden or “Crooked” Hillary. I laugh with them. I prefer to be happy and have peace with my neighbors more than I care about being “right”.

But now, all that has changed.

As Hurricane Ian made a last-minute turn towards Venice last Wednesday, we were alerted that our neighborhood was just outside the mandatory evacuation zone. Between that bit of information and the typically fickle nature of hurricane trajectories, almost all the residents in our subdivision decided to stay in their homes.

The day before landfall, the usually dormant neighborhood was suddenly alive. The Snowbirds (retirees who split their time between northern states in the summer and Florida in the winter), yet to make it south, called to ask their Florida neighbors to help put up storm shutters, sandbag the doors, cut their screens to reduce damage — and we did. People who were making last-minute food, gas, or water runs checked in with others to see if they needed supplies and got enough for whomever was lacking. The Herculean effort of hurricane preparation was divided and conquered. In the work, we learned more about each other, laughed, and voiced our fears about the storm ahead.

Then Ian arrived. In Venice, we were more fortunate than our neighbors to the south in Fort Meyers, but not by much. For the duration of the hurricane, my mother and I hunkered down between two mattresses in an interior closet with our emergency supplies and my cat, Velvis. We held one another as we waited. We waited for the roof to be torn off, we waited for the water to start pouring under the door, we waited for it to end.

We lost power almost as soon as the wind began whipping waves onto our street. The incessant, deafening roar of the storm was punctuated with louder, even scarier noises — like when parts of the roof would fly off or hundred-year-old trees were sucked out of the ground and slammed into the side of the house. Sixteen harrowing hours in the eye wall of a hurricane is not something I’d like to do again.

As frightening as the actual storm was, I knew the real difficulty would be the days and weeks ahead. That’s when you have to assess, clean up, and repair, usually under terrible circumstances. Mom and I stepped out of that closet and into an unrecognizable world of destruction.

Roof tiles litter the ground (Diane Neal)
Roof tiles litter the ground (Diane Neal)

We still have no power and no estimate of when it will be restored. Based on the severed power lines that litter the streets and massive trees hanging in the wires that didn’t snap, I can’t imagine power will be back on anytime soon.

The streets, now somewhat drivable, were completely impassable for days. Many were deeply flooded, with fish swimming in them, and “gator warnings” issued for residents to steer clear of the water for fear of storm survivors becoming lizard lunch.

We had no cell service until this past Saturday, so no one had news of any kind except what we heard from others. The others had, in turn, heard it from someone else who had dared venture out into the unknown. All we had was the literal “word on the street”. Cell service is back now, but there isn’t enough connection to check the internet or open an app. However, you can text and sometimes make a call. The landline doesn’t work.

I asked a friend in New York to pull up the government websites and give me a status report, one I could share with the neighborhood. As of this weekend, we were still “in the red”. That means: stay off the roads, no emergency services, no updates, no anything. I haven’t asked anyone to check today, but I’d be surprised if it has changed.

We did not have any water, except an intermittent trickle, for days. Today there is finally enough pressure that I can flush the toilet without hauling buckets of water into the pitch-black bathroom, and I might even be able to wash my stinky hair. We are under a “boil water” notice, but with no way to boil it, so I must keep the water out of my eyes and mouth or risk illness. And, of course, with no way to heat the water, it will be a cold shower when I get one, but in the air-conditioning-free heat, that won’t be unwelcome.

The subdivision, though littered with downed trees, debris, and parts of homes, is full of people doing their very best. Everyone is checking up on each other, helping where they can, lending what they have to share. Our neighbor to one side, a nimble man in his late 70’s, got up on our steep and slippery roof with me and patched up more holes in 30 minutes than I did in two hours. It was incredible. Our extra tarps cover another neighbor’s roof that caved in during the storm. Rakes and shovels and saws are being passed around, house to house. A communal clothesline stretches through yards so we can all dry the various things we used to mop up the flooding in our homes.

Power lines have been destroyed (Diane Neal)
Power lines have been destroyed (Diane Neal)

But now, so long after the storm without resources, it could get dire. Those with gas generators are running out of fuel. And there is none available for miles in any direction. Even those who found a gas station that was still functional and had a fuel supply have waited for up to eight hours in line to get what they could. The people here with gas generators usually have them to run medical equipment that is critical to their health, or to refrigerate vital medicines. Most of my MAGA neighbors have them. But now they are running out of a way to keep them going.

Food is rotting in warm freezers and fridges, and the standing water everywhere is breeding swarms of mosquitoes.

Although resources are dwindling, the concern and care for each other is not. I imagined, as things further deteriorated, that people would get more protective, selfish. But I was dead wrong. Yesterday, one couple’s son drove five hours on side roads (because highway I-75 was closed) to get them a generator and extra gas. We helped him unload his big truck, covered in Trump/Pence stickers, trying not to spill a drop of the precious liquid. The couple immediately handed off two of the three gas cans to others who had run out. Those neighbors each used some, then passed on the familiar red canisters to the next household in need, and on and on until they were empty.

This son also brought ice. Loads of it. Without hesitation or asking, the couple gave us half. It is like manna from heaven in this heat to have a cool drink, to save food, and to have more potable water. If that generosity couldn’t be topped, the couple even had their son pick up extra dinner just for us. Strombolis. After almost a week of eating “emergency supply” food, nothing has ever tasted so good.

And that is the least of the aid, the help, and the sharing that has emerged from this terrible situation. The smiles, conversations, and concern continue in our little, flattened part of the world.

No doubt, there are many difficult days ahead for all of us, especially as we struggle without basic needs. But we are lucky — it could have been worse, and our hearts ache for those who lost far more than their property. To be sure, there are politicians who will need to account for their decisions that contributed to the havoc wreaked by Mother Nature, and I am sure all of us here on these blocks will disagree on who those liable parties are. But that is for another day.

I used to judge a person by their politics. I am ashamed I did. This disaster has reminded me to measure people by their actions, not by who they vote for. And I hope my neighbors will give me the same courtesy; that they will now see me not as the “limousine liberal” that moved in with her mom, but as a real friend. Like all true friends, we will work to get through this together.