VENICE, Fla. — Nancy Young spent a decade of her 90 years searching out disasters, traveling across the country to the sites of floods and tornadoes as a Red Cross volunteer nurse. This week, the disaster found her.
Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, made its ruinous landfall less than 30 miles south of Young’s small home on the water in Venice, bringing 150 mile-per-hour winds that tore through the area. The damage was hard to fathom — entire blocks were razed or unrecognizable — but it was also random.
Young’s home, at the tip of a peninsula extending into Roberts Bay, was shredded, part of the roof shorn clean off, and soaked in rain. She was nauseous as she stood there on Thursday, a wide patch of post-storm blue sky visible above what used to be her dining room. Debris covered the floor and water pooled on the carpet with every step.
“I never expected it would look like this,” Young said. “I’ve been trying to pick stuff up and then I get sick and sit down.”
Her next door neighbors, meanwhile, were spared.
“What made her house go down and ours didn’t?” Rhonda Racki asked her husband, Ron. Their single-story home perched alongside Young’s property was mostly intact, and by Thursday evening they were grilling chicken beneath their carport.
The uneven destruction in the Harbor Lights community of closely clustered manufactured houses demonstrates the fickle nature of Ian’s terrifying march across Florida, where a mix of construction, preparation and plain luck cast residents wildly different fates. Most people here evacuated ahead of the storm and rode out the worst of it with family or friends, but as they returned to survey the wreckage, many were left puzzled.
The Rackis had recently updated their white home, and an insulated roof covering was cemented onto their back patio. The covering blew off and wrapped around a nearby utility pole, but beyond that, their house was mostly unscathed. Inside, it was pristine.
Maybe the renovations helped, they reasoned. Maybe their other neighbor’s house, which is a couple feet taller, blocked some of the wind.
“Or just a miracle, I don’t know,” Rhonda said.
That’s what Young was hoping for, too. She adored the little waterfront place, where she lived for 15 years with her husband, Bill. It was their dream home, the setting of a latter life love story, from the first moments of a second marriage until the final days of his fatal illness.
Her rosary was coiled on a side table in her living room, and she had been doing a lot of praying. But now she needed a tarp and a place to stay. Water and a working phone. Her four children hadn’t heard from her since the hurricane knocked out power and cell service the day before.
But if the storm’s impact highlighted cruel chance, its aftermath showed how close-knit communities — especially those, like this one, home to people 55 and up — come together after a catastrophe. Ron Racki, 72, had been checking on Young, and he told her he’d arrange an emergency covering for her house. The Rackis’ generator was powering their other neighbor’s fridge.
After all, Rhonda said, it could have easily been them left without a home. Before they evacuated, they looked around the house for what they thought could be the last time.
“We hugged each other, we were shaking,” Rhonda, 65, said. “Seventeen years what we worked for, and it may all be gone in a second. How do you make a decision on what you need? Are we going away forever or are we going away for two nights?”
Rhonda grabbed just a couple things: The purple glass pumpkin she bought after her first husband died — “It reminds me of that time when I transformed from a married woman to a single woman and I had to reinvent myself” — and a pelican sculpture she gifted to her parents, who died in March, when they first moved to Florida.
Right before leaving, “we sat and prayed together,” she said. “And our prayers were answered.”
Similar scenes played out across Ian’s path. About 10 miles southeast, at the Harbor Isles retirement community in North Port, returning residents navigated by golf cart the precarious roads linking subdivisions of manufactured homes. The remnants of thin metal carports were crumpled in the street and scattered across lawns. Garages were leveled, windows shattered, and roofs caved in. Other homes were left seemingly untouched.
Joan Reid approached two reporters hopefully: “I thought you were insurance adjusters,” she said.
A couple rode by on their buggy and she called out to ask how their house fared.
“I need a roof,” one replied.
“I need a roof, too,” Reid, 71, said. Her roof covering was ripped off and hung on a neighbor’s house. The roof below leaked water inside.
As Reid walked down her street, she listed the reasons she moved from North Carolina to this patch of southwest Florida: the community living, the monthly potlucks, the shuffleboard and card games.
“It was really nice, but it’s going to take a long time to build it back,” Reid said.
She had already talked to one neighbor, whose roof blew off, and he told her he was “bringing in a box to load up and then going back home” — back up north.
For Young, her home had been an anchor during two trying years. When her husband Bill developed a massive cancerous tumor on the side of his head, she cared for him at the house. The retired nurse did the dressings herself during his last nine months alive. He died last summer.
Reminders of him are everywhere: The 180-degree view of the water, old photos, the ornate glass dolphin Bill carried home from the other Venice, in Italy.
Young said that when she first walked inside and saw the house in tatters, she wished her husband Bill was there.
Still, she cracked a smile: “It never looked quite this bad, even after parties,” she said with a laugh. “At least it lets some light in.”