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

Three moments still haunt Hurricane Ian survivor Daniela Shtereva.
The first moment: Watching the water begin to rise on Rivard Road, where she lives with her father.
Her neighborhood had weathered Hurricane Irma completely dry, and Shtereva worked on that memory despite warnings that the flood would make that storm different. She recalls her slight panic: "I was like, 'Uh-oh.'"
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The next crucial moment was duct tape. Shtereva began plastering her doors and windows with it, including the garage door to the kitchen. And still the water rose. It seeped into the garage where the professional violinist — a member of the Naples Philharmonic, a lecturer at the Community School of Naples, and a private tutor — kept music.
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The sandbags she was piling up against the garage door - "Useless," she explained. The water sloshed in relentlessly while she and her father, who only speaks her native Bulgarian, tried to stay ahead of the water by piling things on countertops, where the flood would eventually peak. It began to seep into her floor-to-ceiling windows, into the bedrooms, into the bathroom. She knew they had to get out.
The third moment was the Shterevas' longest journey to date. It started in the bedroom, where by the miracle of a recent challenge with an air conditioning compressor, she had left a step stool - on the roof of her house.
She and her father Georgi carried the ladder to the front door and tried to rip it open. But the pressure between the water inside the house and the water outside held it tight. When they tore it open, they waded in chest-deep water where they could get to the top of a heavily pruned shrub - "Another miracle. We had just had that pruned" - and could use its main stem as a step to spiral onto the roof.
Whole household items are sold on Woodside Ave. piled up in East Naples after Hurricane Ian caused a storm surge of up to four feet in the coastal and low-lying regions of Collier County on September 28, 2022. (By Liz Freeman/Contributor
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Shtereva stowed her two cats Pepi and Kalina in the attic with plenty of food, grabbed their passports, her American and her father's Bulgarian. Her violin was placed on the highest possible shelf with hesitation; She would wade back to get it before she was rescued.
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"What was worse: getting the violin wet in the rain or not having a violin at all?" she said with a sigh, remembering her dilemma.
Her calls to 911 came through. But Shtereva recalled being told operations would not begin until the winds had eased under tropical storm force - 39mph around 3pm.
Road curbs across East Naples and the Collier coast are heavily laden with furniture, carpets, appliances and other items destroyed after a storm surge up to 4 feet high in areas that fell ashore on September 28, 2022 surging when Hurricane Ian hit. (By Liz Freeman /Staff Author)
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Cuddling during the storm
For almost two hours, the couple huddled in the storm until a neighbor with a stepladder got them down as the water receded. Then, at about 6:30 p.m., a county lifeboat came humming down what is now the Rivard River.
On Tuesday, Shtereva's front yard was a huge pile of furniture and drywall. The bottom shelf of precious chamber music she kept in her garage looked like wilted lettuce. A Steinway grand piano, her household's most prized possession, took on water through the keyboard. The stove, which started smoking when the water hit it, and her fridge, both soaked to the cupboard level. But she mourns the loss of the piano more.
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"Another contribution to Ian," she said dryly. Still, Shtereva ends a tour of her messy home with a smile. She and her father are safe; the cats are safe; she has her violin.
"In my entire life I have never seen so much love and help from family, friends and even complete strangers," she explained. "Everyone was incredible."
Intense, surreal sight
For artist Nick Rapp, the view of the second floor of the Bayshore Drive building known as Gardenia House took on a "very intense and surreal" horizon as Bayshore Drive, the city's official arts district, became a raging lake.
"[I] even had a rescue mission to pull an elderly disabled man through his window or I have a feeling he would have died," he said in a sober email describing the storm.
"If I hadn't tied down my paddleboard for emergencies...if I had never paddled out to help people and make sure they can cross safely, welcome them to us...and find out more about this man trapped in his place... who knows what his fate would have been,” he wrote.
But Rapp, the accomplished artist, spent part of his weekend painting murals over the discarded plywood storm shutters. One has a giant dahlia in bloom, with a phrase that reflects his optimism: "It will grow back."
Artist Nick Rapp transformed trash and discarded plywood shutters into pop-up art.
Ian Victim: I hate Florida; i love florida
Lacey Swander is done with Florida.
Losing everything after Hurricane Irma five years ago was a starting point. Hurricane Ian's renewed obliteration is the final straw.
"We're leaving," said Swander, 24. "Seeing everything wiped out isn't okay. I can not see it anymore."
She and her husband Nick and their son Oliver live - or rather lived - in an apartment on Blue Point Ave. 1555 in Oyster Bay on the eastern outskirts of the city of Naples.
Since Ian, they've started crouching in an empty second floor unit. Surely that wouldn't last long.
It is unknown how many in Collier's east coast and parts south of US 41 lost everything they held dear to the four-foot storm surge, with a shared feeling that they had never seen anything like it. Many in East Naples have lived in their neighborhoods for decades.
Collier government officials have not released estimates of how many displaced people are with their homes uninhabitable or habitable, with drywall ripped out, deck chairs and folding tables for furniture, inflatable mattresses for beds. Royal Harbour, Oyster Bay and Bayshore all have truck-deep mounds of household waste.
As the water began to rush down the street and seeped about four feet into their ground floor apartment, Nick and Lacey Swander grabbed what they could and went to a second floor neighbor.
"I thought the whole building would collapse," she said.
She feared her family would perish. There's no question either of them are leaving, even though she grew up in Fort Myers.
"We will never go back to Florida," said Nick Swander.
That feeling has been on many people's minds these days 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 a semblance of normality returning to their community, while many in Lee have a long way to go before there is a glimmer of it in their shattered lives.
"I don't want to remodel"
Wes Thrasher, 62, has lived on Andrew Ave for 21 years. 2135 at the south end of Bayshore Drive near the Naples Botanical Garden. He had at least three feet of water in his house.
He blames the 230 homes that go in at the Bayshore end at the Isles of Collier Preserve, where truckload after truckload has been loaded to raise the low-lying area that was once marshland.
"We're in a bowl right now," he said. "We've never had this problem before."
He assumes his house is totally destroyed and he's fine with that. The conversion would take too long.
"I don't want to rebuild," he says.
"I didn't expect it to be this high"
Marianne Lambertson, 52, moved to 3128 Woodside Ave., also off South Bayshore, last summer in one of the newer homes, built in 2018 and taller than the older properties in the area.
"It wasn't high enough," she said, estimating the storm surge was four feet down the street and she got an inch of water into her home. "I really didn't expect it to be that high."
On Pine Street on the U.S. 41 S. Marcelino Mendoza tried to stay in a duplex where he had lived with two roommates for at least four years.
"The other guys decided to leave," he said, later admitting he should have left too.
He laid a piece of plywood across the front door, thinking it might slow the incoming water. It was useless, he quickly learned. He grabbed a stick to swim out as the water came up to his chest.
A man in a stilt house nearby, whom Mendoza had never met before, saw him and shouted for Mendoza to come to his house.
Upon reaching the stilt house, Mendoza saw that he was one of several being offered safe haven until the waters receded. At that point, others at the house said an alligator had been sighted about half a block away in the murky water.
Mendoza hopes his landlord will repair the internal damage to his duplex and allow him to stay in the meantime. He likes the area and the proximity to bus routes.
Cheney Labor, who was born and raised in Collier County, remains bullish about Southwest Florida, despite the fact that a lot he bought at 2918 Poplar St. in East Naples, near Bayshore Drive, has absorbed several feet of water . He had converted it into a rental apartment and now has to start over.
"That's the price you pay for living in Florida," said Labour, 48. "Every few years, right? I take that over snow every day.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-253-8936.
This article originally appeared in the Naples Daily News: Deadly waters roared Hurricane Ian's wrath in East Naples, Bayshore Art District

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