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Surviving Hurricane Ian at a Fort Myers Apartment Complex

At this point, there was a knock on his door. The apartment opens to a covered and railed corridor, but otherwise open to the elements. “I’m like, ‘Who the hell is trying to hang out?’ Rayhart said. He was another downstairs neighbor who had a young family. Rayhart thought they had evacuated. (Rayhart and Stebbins estimate that about half of the apartment complex’s residents evacuated the island prior to the hurricane’s arrival.) Rayhart told me the man said, “Do you mind?” He added, laughing, “I told her to come in.” The water outside was now waist deep and rising into the first floor apartments. The man ran downstairs to look for his family while Rayhart tried to keep the door ajar due to the strong wind.

“It was taking too long,” Rayhart said.

As it turned out, Stefanie had been a professional lifeguard for years. She told Rayhart to grab a rope. She ran to her closet and found her dog’s twenty-foot training leash. “She and I ran out,” she continued, “and I tied the leash around the stair railing. She grabs the rope, jumps into the water holding it, and heads for the window downstairs because they can’t even open the door.” . She handed the leash through the window to the man, who returned a small child to her. Holding the leash and the crying child, Stefanie headed back up the stairs. (Rayhart told me that the man and his family, whose names she declined to share, did not want to talk to the media about her ordeal.)

Rayhart could see the ceiling tiles on his lanai coming undone and some tree limbs falling. He was wearing jeans, in the pouring rain, trying to figure out if he should walk to his first-floor neighbor’s window. As he thought, Stebbins jumped into the water, reached the window and fetched the bags with one hand while he held the strap with the other. Stefanie followed him: this time the man handed her a baby through the window. Then he climbed out the window with a box of water, and his wife followed him with her little dog.

Once everyone was inside apartment #50, Rayhart bolted and barricaded the door. He offered his neighbors towels and trail mix. A little later, looking out the back window toward the unit’s parking lot, Rayhart noticed the water level rising relative to a nearby stairwell. It seemed like a good way to measure the progress of the wave. “We were losing about a step a half hour,” he told me. “Meanwhile,” he continued, “I’m texting my parents in Tennessee, like, ‘When is this storm supposed to end?’ My dad is like, ‘Midnight.’ I’m like, ‘Oh great.’ But he wasn’t telling them what was really going on, so they wouldn’t freak out.”

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