In the course of a day, Abel Cruz, 32, lost his car, his two jobs and the house he was renting in Harlem Heights, a hard-hit neighborhood located southwest of Fort Myers along the road to Sanibel Island. in Florida
In the long week since Hurricane Ian, Cruz has begun the process of extracting herself from the chaos the storm created in her family’s life. The death toll from one of the worst hurricanes in US history reached at least 101 on Thursday.
“Well, I was working at Sanibel Marina and Doc Ford, so I lost both of my jobs and almost [everything]. Three days later, I was doing landscaping, anything I can get to make money that will help me,” Cruz said.
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Harlem Heights is home to people who made Southwest Florida attractive. Her sweaty work made her feel like paradise. They are or were landscapers, food service workers and hotel employees. They are parents. More than 40% of the community are children and teenagers. Most people there speak Spanish at home.
The median household income of its 1,400 residents is $26,000, according to the census. Nearly half of the people live below the poverty line, making rebuilding after a hurricane daunting and difficult without help.
On Wednesday, the streets of Harlem Heights were littered with debris from low-rise single-story homes that were flooded with several feet of rushing water that lingered long after the hurricane passed. Cruz’s yard was still soaked.
During the storm, Cruz was a hurricane hero, helping his family, neighbors and pets escape the rising water. They found refuge on higher ground in the strong walls of The Heights Foundation, where electricity was restored on Wednesday.
Hundreds of families have found refuge there after Ian, too, Heights Foundation leaders said. The foundation’s charter school has Wi-Fi hotspots and the center distributes food, water and other supplies.
“We go door to door and try to see what the immediate needs are,” said Deb Mathinos, director of programs for The Heights Foundation. “The community wants to rebuild itself. They want to live here. They are not ready to give up their house and the space that has been their family’s home for decades.”
Mathinos said families could use volunteers willing to help clean up and clean wet homes. Once the houses are clean, families could use bedding and furniture to replace what they lost. Donations to The Heights Foundation could also help.
Volunteers have come from all over Florida and the Southeast.
On Wednesday, Fort Myers Police Lt. Walter Mitchell, who has family in Harlem Heights, was there with truckloads of supplies from the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
A group of men from Miami brought tuna, sausages and fresh Cuban bread door to door. “Tenemos más pan,” said a volunteer, passing another loaf of bread to Cruz’s sister, who was at home with her stepfather and mother. His 13-year-old son also lives there.
Cruz was friendly. “That feels good… We’re Mexican, so it’s like our bread.”
Donations ease the financial blow.
Had already called insurance for his 2008 Jetta. Would get nothing. His mother and stepfather also had their vehicles wrecked.
As a boat mechanic on Sanibel, a nearby island that was decimated by the storm, and as a food runner at Doc Ford’s, Cruz earned about $1,400 a week. Now his main source of income will be fixing up the house where his family lived. The owner hired him.
“That way we can fix the house as soon as possible and then we can come back,” Cruz said. “It’s sad, but we’ll get through it.”
On Wednesday, the building was stripped of its wet walls and insulation. His furniture was piled up on the curb. The clothes were drying in the yard. Once they return, they could use help replacing their furniture and bedding so they have a place to sleep.
For now, she is staying with her sister in a nearby 3-bedroom apartment with 10 other family members. “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Cruz’s family plans to ask FEMA for help.
Mathinos said the foundation will offer resources to help people navigate the process of applying for insurance and unemployment and FEMA applications. They could use volunteers with computer skills.
“If we have bilingual people, that’s definitely something we can use,” he said. “As a community, we are Harlem Strong and we are going to rebuild.”
How to help
Visit heightsfoundation.org to learn how to support the organization’s various hurricane relief efforts or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connect with this reporter on Twitter @JanineZeitlin.