FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Shawn Hunte figured he would weather Hurricane Ian the same way he weathered countless storms as a shrimper on the flooded, tilted decks of bucking boats in high seas.
But Ian was “Mother Nature kicking ass,” he said. It swept him in a raging current through his San Carlos Island trailer park to the top of a 15-foot tree, where he clung to the trunk for three hours as a fleet of runaway boats from an adjacent marina floated by.
“I took a beating up there,” Hunte said, pointing to a denuded royal poinciana and an upended Jacuzzi that he used as a platform when it became wedged in the branches while he wielded a leather couch cushion as a shield against flying debris. “The water rose so rapidly, and when it was up to our necks we jumped out the door, grabbed whatever we could find and held on til kingdom come. And it almost did, man, it almost did.”
Hunte’s story of survival was even more incredible given the demolished state of the trailer park surrounding him. He and his 77-year-old uncle live in a 36-foot Jayco camper in Sunnyland — nicknamed “Moneyland” by its working-class residents — hard by Hurricane Bay and the bridge to Fort Myers Beach.
Like the hundreds of mobile home parks dotting Southwest Florida, Sunnyland’s collection of motley, immobile trailers and RVs was not built to withstand the 150 mph winds and 10 to 12 feet of storm surge that slammed coastal communities last Wednesday. The wreckage was testament to their vulnerability: They are sitting ducks during hurricane season.
While construction standards were toughened for flimsy mobile homes that failed 30 years ago during Hurricane Andrew, Ian was a Category 4 monster that caused unprecedented flooding. In the aftermath of Ian, as in the aftermath of every major storm, the damage in trailer parks like Sunnyland is extreme.
The question of whether to rebuild the fragile communities hung in the air, as palpable as the odor of fetid saltwater. Should dangerous older parks be phased out — particularly in high-risk coastal areas? Or should a vital source of affordable housing for retirees, service industry employees and agricultural workers be preserved — but built back stronger?
Ian will renew the debate over what to do about a style of living that is both famous and infamous in Florida. There are more than 800,000 mobile or manufactured homes in the state housing 12 percent of the population and about 37,500 in Lee County alone, where 54 deaths, most by drowning, had been reported as of Monday.
Hunte would like to stay here, even after his harrowing experience during Ian.
“I am not optimistic someone will give me a mansion so we will pick up the pieces because I have no other option,” said Hunte, 55. A day after Ian he was subsisting on water from coconuts he had cut open and walking through slimy muck in his white fishing boots to check on neighbors and search for bottled water, food and cigarettes. His 23-year-old camper was uninhabitable. His half-buried Grand Marquis was inoperative. Barbecue grills, TV satellite dishes, velour recliners, bikes and kitchen utensils sat in brown puddles.