'We're all human beings': Everblades' Hertz Arena turns Red Cross mega-shelter after Hurricane Ian

Barbie and Ken Kolc each thought they'd lost each other in the floodwaters.

The 18-foot storm surge washed over the mobile home where the couple had lived for nearly 20 years. Mud, carried on the swirling rush of sea and storm water, began to seal the doors and windows and made the floor slick as they saved what they could.

They'd tried to evacuate, making plans a week before Hurricane Ian was set to make landfall near their home on Fort Myers Beach. They were turned away from the hotel and had nowhere else to go.

Barbara and Kenneth Kolc, 76 and 65 respectively, knew they had to risk leaving the structure if they hoped to survive.

By the way: FEMA has activated hotel program for temporary housing for those impacted by federal disasters

How 37 Florida police departments are working together on Ian recovery in SWFL

But the pull of the waters almost tore them from each other forever.

Barbara Kolc is recovering from Stage 4 cancer. She hopes she'll get confirmation she's in remission later this month. She carried a purse over her head with their important paperwork.

Kenneth Kolc carried their 15-year-old tuxedo tomcat, Mickey, wrapped in a blanket, over his head.

They pulled themselves along from tree to tree, heading toward possible shelter in a nearby house until they were separated.

Barbara Kolc shared her story outside the American Red Cross shelter in Estero, at the Hertz Arena where the Everblades minor league hockey team plays. Barbie and Ken were nicknames they cheerfully took on once they married.

She's soft spoken and often had tears in her eyes.

Sharing the story helps, she said. She wants to talk about her memories.

"It feels like we were in a war zone and we've emerged into heaven," she said. "The people here, they're our angels."

A neighbor, who before this she only knew to wave to, yelled down for Barbara to stay put so she could wade down and literally drag her to safety.

She carried her to the second floor, kicking in a window and setting the older woman on the kitchen counter in the damaged house, Barbara said.

Then, the woman went back for Ken.

"He thought he'd lost me," Barbara said.

Kenneth, who stood behind his wife outside the arena as she sat in an office chair used as a makeshift wheelchair, grinned, displaying a gap in his teeth where a partial denture set went missing in the chaos.

"He thinks the gators are probably wearing it," Barbara joked.

They've been married for 40 years, she said. She acknowledged their age difference, commenting they didn't even know about it until a year after they started dating.

In those 40 years spent living in Florida, they've seen other hurricanes come and go.

"This was different," she said. "I'll never forget that surge."

The couple and their rescuer spent two days in that second floor home with few supplies. Eventually they felt it was safe enough to venture out and Barbara was transported to the Estero shelter by ambulance.

Shelter takes over hockey rink

Inside the shelter is a hub of activity. The large space feels much smaller, even when stepping onto the spot that is normally center ice for the Everblades.

Rows of cots sit on a floor just above the layer of live ice. The team was expected to report later this month, before the storm turned the space into a mega-shelter. Some of those staying at the shelter reclined on lofty queen-size air mattresses, brought in by Lee County teams before the Red Cross took over full management of the shelter this week, placed in a ring around the outside of the rink and in the hallways circling it.

There's a constant low hum of conversation on the concourse, with volunteers and staff in red vests setting up snack bar tables and checking in new refugees. On the ice floor, it's largely quiet. Some shelter residents sat in the arena stands, reading or chatting. Some tried to sleep.

In the bathroom, some charged their phones or tried to maintain a semblance of a normal hygiene routine.

Everywhere, there were dogs and other pets. They slept in cages, or were walked outside on leashes by their owners or other residents offering to help. They, too, were largely subdued during the day Wednesday.

The shelter's population was notably made up of older people, as well as many people using wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Racially they were widely diverse and several languages were spoken throughout the building.

Amanda Hampton drove across the state from Palm Coast to help fellow medical professionals offer assistance to those in the facility. They'd spent the first few days prioritizing those with disabilities and medical needs including to help those people take showers in the trucks set up outside.

In one case, she said, a kid hurt his ankle while playing with other children. So far, no serious cases have come to her.

Phil Pallone, shelter director, wanted to make an announcement at 11 a.m. from approximately the goal zone. He used the announcer sound system, giving updates about meals and shower availability to the 507 people housed there on Wednesday.

After his initial announcement, Manny Mendoza, who drove in from El Paso, Texas, repeated Pallone's announcements in Spanish.

The director was stopped every 10 feet or so as he walked the concourse of the arena heading for the main floor to answer question after question.

When will there be more showers? What are we expecting for lunch? Who do I talk to about resources?

He paused, attempting to help each person or delegating as needed. He rattled off head counts and the square footage of the cot layout as he walked. He knew how long he could string out the 11 a.m. announcements before the shelter's attention drifted and people stopped listening. He peered up at the stands for a moment, scheming about tapping into other fire department water access points to get more showers and laundry facilities up and running.

"Getting things organized is easy. With the execution, you have to be able to identify your leaders, tell them what the general tasks are, and then give them the latitude...and get out of their way," he said. "They're doing really well."

Community forms inside Estero shelter

Hector Rivera, 41, rode out the storm in Cape Coral.

He remembers the sound of wind, more than anything. No sirens, no thunder, just wind and rain. The house he was staying in was only minimally damaged, "by the grace of God," he said.

When the skies cleared, he headed downtown, walking 45 minutes in search of power, food and shelter. He quickly realized those were in short supply.

He'd never seen such destruction, he said, though as a native Floridian he's no stranger to hurricanes.

"The storm did a good job on this city," he said ruefully.

Speaking outside the shelter, he paused in his narrative to say hello or wave to someone passing. He's become friendly with his companions in this difficult space, sharing information as needed and carrying a smile for everyone.

He proudly announced he helped set up the Red Cross sign welcoming all who seek shelter there.

"We're all in this together right here. I just pray to God he shines his light and helps these people out," Rivera said. "We just go on and just you know, try to live as normal as possible."

Spokesperson Jay Lawrence, a longtime Red Cross volunteer, said around 1,500 Red Cross staff and volunteers have responded to Hurricane Ian so far. They're operating 20 shelters in the area and their numbers are trending up.

"The Red Cross has been here. We were here during the storm, we're here now and we're going to be here for weeks and months. You're going to see more and more red vests in your community," he said.

Beyond shelters, the organization plans to bring assistance to clean up efforts, including, eventually, distribution sites to pick up cleaning supplies needed to begin the recovery process.

Those who need help — or those who wish to donate — can visit redcross.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS for the most updated information on their efforts, he said.

Both Rivera and Barbara Kolc praised both the national organization and the county officials who stepped in to help in the wake of the storm.

"We're all human beings and we've all come together. For the most part, the majority has all come together to help each other out. And I think that's what's most important," he said.

Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hertz Arena in Estero becomes Hurricane Ian shelter. A look inside