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In Fort Myers, Black Residents Fear Hurricane Aid Will Bypass Their Neighborhoods

Surrounded by snapped power lines and toppled oak trees, the community begins the long road to recovery after Ian.

Frankie Romulus (left) and Kendrick Romulus stand outside their Fort Myers, Florida, apartment on Thursday next to a boat that was pushed into their complex by Hurricane Ian. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Following Capital B’s story, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg tweeted on October 3 that the agency is providing resources to the Dunbar neighborhood. “We are aware of the needs in Dunbar and sent teams to the area yesterday. Our @FEMA disaster survivor assistance teams are going door to door again today in the community.”

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The gray clouds, torrential rain, and 155 mph winds that were unleashed on this city Wednesday had passed. By the following afternoon, Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S., was sitting in the Atlantic Ocean. 

But the remnants of the storm’s wrath remained. Roofs were in tatters, decades-old trees were toppled, concrete walkways were ripped from the ground. 

Arkeisha Reese held the ladder steady against her house as her 24-year-old son wobbled onto what was left of their roof.

“Give me the screwdriver,” he called down.

Reese had evacuated to Orlando before Ian arrived. When she returned to her home of four years, half of the roof had caved in. Underneath, the storm had torn her television off the wall and destroyed her clothes. She’ll need a new closet — and a new roof. For now, they were covering the gaping hole with a tarp.

“Should I go higher?” her son asked, questioning how far he could inch toward the hole without falling through.

“I don’t know. How are you feeling up there?”

Arkeisha Reese and her 24-year-old son cover their Fort Myers’ home with a tarp after the storm wiped out half of the roof. (Margo Snipe/Capital B)

For residents of Fort Myers’ predominantly Black Dunbar neighborhood, recovering from the near-Category 5 storm will require a lot of do-it-yourself handiwork. They’ll have to wait for insurance companies to start answering calls, power companies to remove dangling power lines that sparked then snapped, and tree companies to deploy with saws and cranes to pry oak branches and palm trees off of the houses they’ve slammed into.

Dunbar sits off the waterfront, east of the railroad tracks that residents say mark the split between mostly white and mostly Black areas. Neighborhoods in Fort Myers remain extremely divided by race, according to federal housing data. The data shows segregation has increased since 2010. 

When Ian came ashore Wednesday, bringing storm surges of up to 12 feet, the wealthier, waterfront communities of Florida’s west coast took the brunt of the floodwaters. But it was Ian’s brutal winds that left inland communities like Dunbar wrecked.

More than 2 million Floridians lost power in the hurricane. Neighborhoods have transformed into gasoline deserts where fuel is hard to come by for miles on end. Drinking water is, too.

Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, is under a boil water notice, and 98% of residents have no power.

Now, as Ian has moved north — making a second landfall in South Carolina on Friday — concerns are arising about how aid will be distributed among Florida’s hurricane-ravaged communities.

Across Lee County, the median household income for white families is more than $53,400. For Black families, it drops under $37,300. About 26% of Black families are living in poverty, double the rate for white families. The disparity suggests that recovering from a major natural disaster — which requires significant resources, time, and money — may disproportionately burden Black residents.

In Florida, eight U.S. Army Reserve teams with more than 800 members are performing search and rescues, along with the National Guard and Coast Guard. The state’s emergency response division is deploying diesel, generators, ambulances, tarps, and trucks of food, water, and ice to impacted communities.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the bulk of the emergency response was being ushered to the coast, where boats stacked on top of rubble and homes were completely decimated. In Dunbar, where most homes were still standing, residents worried about food and water supply, the stability of the roofs that still appeared intact, and down power lines.

After hurricanes strike, deaths sometimes occur in the days to follow as a result of such issues.

Stephanie Stephens’ car was trapped in her car port. Behind it was crumbled concrete from the driveway that uprooted when an oak tree — more than 70 years old — tipped over. The tree, now on its side, is still taller than the house.

Stephanie Stephens, 65, poses in front of the 70-year-old tree that tipped over in front of her Fort Myers home. (Margo Snipe/Capital B)

Power lines, once sparking in the wind, lay tangled in its branches. The oak next to it was still standing. “They weathered every storm,” said Stephens, 65, who was born and raised in the city and has stayed through every major storm. 

“We really didn’t prepare,” she said. “We’ve been in them before.”

She worried about her 90-year-old mother with a pacemaker, and her daughter still in the hospital with her premature baby. 

Her family has been cooking using propane since the power went out Wednesday afternoon. The house next door still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Irma in 2017. It needed a new roof and new windows. 

Stephens has called emergency service twice for help removing the tree and checking the power line. Nothing yet. 

“They ain’t coming for us,” said Stephens. “This is a good ol’ boy town.”

She was standing on top of the leaves and twigs coating the sidewalks, wondering when help would come for her community. She’s sure the more affluent white neighborhoods were faring better in terms of emergency response.

Her demeanor was calm. That’s how she always is, she said, before adding, “send help.”

A few blocks down, Doll Pruitt sat in a lawn chair on her front patio. The generator she bought five years ago after Hurricane Irma buzzed a few feet away, keeping the food she had left in her refrigerator cool. The sound echoed down the block. Those who had generators had switched them on by now, filling the neighborhood with a familiar hum.

Pruitt and her husband had boarded the house. As Ian made its way to the coast, they sat inside with their grandchildren and waited. The children were more calm than she was; she doesn’t think they knew what was happening. 

The radio flickered for about an hour until it cut silent.

“It was scary,” said Pruitt, 56, who was born and raised in Fort Myers. “It just lasted too long. I’ve never been in one that long.”

A tree, toppled over with power lines running through it, blocks in a car and crumbles concrete in the city’s predominantly Black Dunbar neighborhood. (Margo Snipe/Capital B)

As dinner time approached and the sun began to set, a gentle breeze set in, an eerie pause in the almost unbearable heat that typically pipes down on Florida’s beach towns in the summer months. It was carrying smoke from the grills, dispersed across Dunbar, that had been lit. Neighbors came together to make sure folks were fed.

Garry Davis, 43, was sweeping his driveway, unconcerned about the palm tree now propped up against the roof of his mother’s house. He heard it fall last night. There was little to do now but wait until he’s able to reach someone who can remove it.

Some houses down, a tree had almost sliced a home in two. 

Carsi Bellamy, who has lived next door for 20 years, heard the boom. He wondered if a nearby transformer blew or lightning struck. When he tried to peer out of his patio door, the wind almost tore it off the hinges. 

Ian was his fifth major hurricane. After Frances, Irma, Charley, and Michael. 

“Ian was the worst,” said Bellamy, who stayed home alone. “I didn’t even prepare for this one.”

His aunt’s house, right on the beach, was flooded. A photo from inside the home showed their SUV nearly covered in water. Now, the house sat filled with mud. 

The worst part is waiting on the power to come back on, said Bellamy. “My groceries are going bad.” He wonders if he should cut down the trees in his front yard. It is something he has never thought of before. In the midst of the storm, he moved his car a few feet back, fearing a tree would crush it. 

He’s convinced his community will have to wait until the last wave of resources to get help. 

“I haven’t seen one light truck,” he said. “No tree truck. I haven’t seen one power truck.”