FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Ian has rocked southwest Florida to the core. Some of us lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Through the tragedy, we will all heal. A remembrance wall, now standing at Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers, is a place where healing may begin for some.
"We’re creating a memorial for the victims of the hurricane. So what we’re going to do is put pictures and tie up to that fence right there and then surround them with flowers," said Leo Soto, founder of the Wall of Hope Foundation. "This is about providing them with a place to hope."
The Miami resident has done this before. He set up memorials like this in places such as Surfside and the Kentucky tornadoes in 2021. Each one was surrounded by flowers. More than 4,000 were donated by local stores, florists and community members.
"That’s why I feel like the flowers are so powerful that even if the hope does run out, there’s still going to be beauty no matter what," Soto said.
Hope is what families need right now as many are grieving. In Lee County, 58 people have died as of Wednesday afternoon.
"You're going to see the pictures here of the victims and it's going to hurt," Soto said. "I can’t even imagine how many we don’t know about. What’s still to be found out. Yeah, it's tough."
Soto said he picked pictures of their happiest moments because that's how he wants them to be remembered. He wants people to have hope for the loved ones still missing.
"We have to appreciate and love those that are no longer with us," Soto said.
Hope is a feeling we all define differently.
"Hope to me means that for other people there is hope out there, that there are people out here willing to come out and help," said Brianne Jones, who came to the remembrance wall on Wednesday.
To Soto, it means there's an entire community here to help everyone through this hard time.
"I think it’s going to be a place for people to come and just reflect on all of the things that have happened over the last couple days," Jones said.
Soto also wants people to look at it in a positive manner.
"To that hope that brings love, to that hope that brings community, and that’s what I want to do and that’s why I picked hope," he said.
We don't know how long it'll take to bring a sense of normalcy back to our community, but southwest Florida will come back stronger than ever.
"There’s hope out there," Jones said. "We will rebuild. We are stronger together."