FORT MYERS, Fla. — The traffic is back, constant and unrelenting on those hot weekday afternoons. The cars and trucks zoom by as the sun beats down on the ashphalt of the parking lot.
The electricity is back. The pool is also back open. Most of the apartments are as well.
Life at the Coral Harbor Apartments, on Gladiolus Drive just east of Summerlin Road, is also back to where it was before September 28, 2022.
At least most of it.
This complex, with six large, two-story apartment buildings, is about five miles inland but also on the edge of Hendry Creek. As Hurricane Ian hit on year ago, the storm surge filled up Estero Island and Fort Myers Beach but the water into Estero Bay and Hendry Creek led to a major storm surge inland.
Don Barrett has lived in one of the first-floor units for six years. He was fortunate, in one way, in that Barrett was a day's drive away during the hurricane. Yet his wife was back at the apartment.
"I was in Virginia for my dad's 90th birthday," said Barrett, as we talked in the shade on a recent hot Thursday afternoon. "When the water came in, she called me and we lost connection for two or three days. So I traveled down here not knowing if she made it or not."
When Barrett finished the long drive back to Fort Myers, his wife was okay but what filled his vision was unforgettable.
"Every car in this whole complex was destroyed," said Barrett. "Some were in the canal. The water came in so far that some people couldn't even open their door. They had to go out the window. My neighbor got swept down to another stairway and grabbed on or else he would have been washed away."
The first-floor units for the two most southwest buildings are still closed as repair crews are still working to renovate those.
We also met one woman who just moved into a first-floor unit on Maida Lane. FOX 4 found this particular spot very striking as the flood-ruined household items and debris, from furniture to sofas to piles of clothing stacked high in front of one building. That night, October 3, 2022, the first Monday after Ian hit, we anchored five hours of news, on-site, to really comprehend the damage.
Sabrina Sherrill said she was not too concerned with the location and the risk of another storm surge coming. She's not a newbie to Southwest Florida, after all.
"You just gotta take risks, " said Sherrill. "I love Southwest Florida. I've been here over 20 years. That's just part of living here in Florida."
The story of surviving Hurricane Ian is an experience that all who got through it hold close in their memories. Those confusion and terrifying hours on September 28 and the days in the dark that followed forced many people to re-calibrate what was important. A shift away from "things" and into the common stories of survival.
"Everyone here was so depressed and didn't know what to do," Barrett said of the days after Ian. "The people upstairs were trying to help out. They rescued some people. But it was just one of the worst things that ever happened to us in our entire life."
We also went back to check on an optimistic woman who lived in Coral Harbor for more than a decade. Virginia Sallee offered us a graceful interview on that night, October 3, four days after a historic hurricane washed through her apartments and the items within it.
Her first-floor unit is still closed off at Coral Harbor but Barrett told us that he has heard from her and she's doing okay, just living elsewhere.
In our return to the complex to talk with people about their hurricane experiences, we also met plenty of new residents. People from Minnesota, New York, Ukraine, all truly "new" to Southwest Florida. They didn't live through Huirricane Ian but now they're living their dreams of a warmer climate and being close to the ocean.
"They renovated the place lovely," said Sherrill, the long-time Floridian but still new to Coral Harbor. "I got a nice view. I see little baby gecko lizards and wildlife in the morning."