Hurricane Ian flooded much of southwest Florida with heavy storm surges Wednesday before making landfall as a Category 4 storm that night. As the storm hit South Carolina Friday, the death toll in Florida reached 17.
In Chicago and across the Midwest, people are stepping up in support of those affected as recovery continues. The American Red Cross has sent volunteers to the scene, longtime customers recount memories of a decimated Bears sports bar along a Florida beach and a Chicagoan has started a GoFundMe for a family who evacuated to the city.
Amanda Mejia had moved to Florida to start over. After the death of her husband and caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease, a place near water with beautiful sunsets and warm weather sounded like a chance for healing and stability, thought Mejia, who grew up in Aurora.
She and her three children moved into a cottage in Fort Myers in May 2021, just two miles from the beach. Mejia, 39, took up photography, filling her Instagram page with pictures of seashells. Her daughter, Lourdes, 15, attended a performing arts high school. Her middle child, Mink, 14, had his art work displayed in a state competition. And her youngest, Nehemiah, who turned 11 on Sept. 23, volunteered for safety patrol.
Just last week, Lourdes performed for the first time in front of an audience, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” while accompanying herself on the piano.
But just days later, with Hurricane Ian swirling toward the state, the family packed the car with their two cats, extra clothes and pillows and were on the road to Chicago. The kids were supposed to have school Monday, but after Mejia heard from a friend on nearby Sanibel Island that residents were moving their yachts, she knew: They needed to leave.
As Hurricane Ian neared the Florida coast, the family drove north for three days, stopping at hotels each night. Her kids watched footage of the storm surges and devastation on TikTok livestreams along the way. But the kids remained optimistic. Maybe they could dry out some of the artwork that had been hanging on the walls, and surely they’d be back for the school choir concert by mid-October, they said.
But Mejia slowly began to hear from neighbors and community members that the area is completely underwater and inaccessible, leaving Mejia to conclude that her house is likely destroyed. And even if there is some of the structure left, she fears it will be inhospitable due to the potential for mold or parasites from the ocean.
“We are understanding that we’re starting over,” Mejia said. “We’re here.”
For now, she is staying with her mother-in-law in Little Village. The kids are heartbroken, she said.
“They’re realizing that that Oct. 11 concert isn’t going to happen, and we’re going to start in brand new schools and have to make all new friends, and this really sucks,” Mejia said.
Mejia first moved to Chicago in her 20s, where she met her husband and started her family. One night, 13 years ago, she ended up a bar that happened to have karaoke, and as she sang, Nicole Massett happened to be in the audience.
Massett remembers thinking she had most beautiful voice, and approached Mejia to tell her — a random compliment that sprung a lasting friendship.
Now they’ve seen each other through life’s most difficult moments, even as Mejia has had to uproot her family out of the city. In 2020, Mejia moved to Iowa to take care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s before she was admitted into a home. After her death, Mejia chose to move to Florida instead of back to Chicago, where painful memories of her husband, who died in 2017, remained.
But in the back of her mind, she always knew she wanted to move back.
“I just didn’t know how I would ever do it,” she said.
As Mejia evacuated, Massett followed the progress of the hurricane. When she hadn’t heard from Mejia, she made a mental note to check in on her. Then the phone rang. When she heard Mejia’s voice, she remembers asking if they were OK.
“Of course they’re not OK. I don’t know why that question is first,” Massett said. “But I have to say it.”
Now, Massett is set to help her “chosen family.” Massett started a GoFundMe, which had raised more than $1,000 as of Friday and is collecting clothing donations for the family.
She’s also worked to gather art supplies for the kids, knowing how important creativity is to them. One of their favorite games, Massett said, is for each to close their eyes, pick three random colors and illustrate something using only those colors
In Florida, Mink had been collecting a marker set, one piece at a time, now likely lost to the flood. One of the donations the family received, however, was the full collection. Lourdes, who had to leave her instruments behind, received an acoustic guitar from Massett’s partner on Friday, and immediately broke out in a grin.
“That smile hasn’t happened once since she got here,” Massett said.
Mejia said her kids have expressed a lot of anger toward her, both for the fact that they moved to Florida in the first place and for having to leave so soon after arriving. But that’s what being a mom is about, she says.
On Friday, the family gathered at Massett’s apartment. The sounds of a Halloween movie and a gentle tune sung by Lourdes emanated from the living room.
For now, they are taking it day by day and are grateful for all the donations, funds and love they’ve received from people in the city. Mejia said her next steps are to look for an apartment and get the kids in school. She’s also applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But for right now, the family has plans to snuggle around a couch, share a pizza with cans of Coca-Cola and watch “Hocus Pocus 2.”
The first floor of Doc’s Beach House in Bonita Springs, Florida, looked like a standard beach bar, according to longtime customer Jill Holter of Minnetonka, Minnesota. A place to walk in straight from the beach and order a drink, donning a bathing suit cover up and sandy feet.
Upstairs, however, Doc’s Beach House lived up to its claim as “home of da Bears.”
Filled with jerseys, helmets and signed memorabilia, Doc’s was clearly a Bears sports bar, Holter said.
“It just had that wonderful kind of cluttered, nostalgic feel of being a legit sports bar that was very focused on their team,” Holter, 55, said.
Doc’s Beach House was hit by the storm surge of Hurricane Ian this week. Boe Cibula, the owner of Doc’s, said it was the worst storm he has ever seen. They were planning to celebrate the bar’s 35th anniversary on Nov. 5.
“The first floor is totally gone,” Cibula told the Tribune. Several of their 50 staffers helped out with sandbags. “They helped save it,” Cibula said.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and they have already started rebuilding the bar, he said.
Speaking by cellphone on Friday evening, Cibula had just left the site, where five trucks of sand were being dumped, as well as yards and yards of rock.
“The 20 yards of rock surely helped save us,” Cibula said of the two-story structure.
The second floor remains intact, he said. It showcases Chicago keepsakes such as pictures of the Chicago Blackhawks, the 1985 Chicago Bears and an actual bar that was originally in a sports bar on Chicago’s Rush Street in the late 1970s.
“We’ve got a lot of Chicago fans,” Cibula said.
The second level was filled with TVs, remembers Kathleen Hohl, another longtime Doc’s supporter who lives in Milwaukee. If a Chicago team was playing, that game was on, Hohl said, whether it be the Blackhawks, White Sox or Cubs.
Hohl, 55, is a Green Bay Packers fan but still loved visiting Doc’s, especially sitting on the second floor and soaking in the sight of the Gulf.
“When we took people for the first time, especially Wisconsin born and bred, we would say, ‘OK now, here’s a warning,’” Hohl said. “‘The views are great, the food is good, the beer is cold, but it’s a Bears bar.’”
Holter, 55, has been going to Bonita Springs and Naples in southwest Florida since the 1990s. Located about 10 minutes from the house her parents had built in the area, Doc’s was the perfect place to gather, she said. And with its ties to the Midwest, it always felt like home away from home.
The last time Holter had been in the area was November. After her parents died, the family sold their house and returned to sign the closing papers.
“I think I was in town for 36 hours — the only restaurant we went to was Doc’s,” Holter said.
Holter learned about the restaurant’s destruction through Instagram. All week, she had followed along as the staff prepared. The restaurant’s social media page shared pictures of people putting up sandbags along the beach, receiving thousands of comments of support. And when she saw the photo posted Thursday depicting its gutted interior, she started crying and immediately texted her children, she said. While they originally had plans to visit next June, she said it will likely be years before they return.
On Thursday night, the restaurant posted a photo to Instagram. In the foreground there was rubble from the hurricane’s destruction. But the image focused on the sun setting over the ocean, a vibrant layer of orange.
“Sunset felt a little different tonight,” the caption reads. “Thank you everyone for the overwhelming love and support! We will back soon!!!”
Holter and Hohl both wholeheartedly believe in the restaurant’s ability to hold true to that.
“We will be back when they open to support them,” Hohl said. “I think that’s part of the Midwest, that you help people who are in need.”
The American Red Cross has been involved and positioned people and materials in Florida well in advance of the storm, said Joy Squier, spokeswoman for the Chicago chapter.
“We work along with community, government and faith-based organizations because we know no one organization can do it alone,” Squier said.
As of 2 p.m. Friday, the Red Cross has 20 volunteers in the Chicago area with additional help “on deck,” but more are needed.
Volunteers can be any skill level and can go to Florida if they are willing, stay in Chicago or even work remotely, said Squier.
After being trained, there are “all kinds” of opportunities. “We welcome everyone.”
They are doing “a variety of things” including helping with evacuations, assisting shelters, going into homes with food and making sure those affected have health needs, including mental health needs, met.
“We’re putting out the call in Chicago and if people want to volunteer, they should go to redcross.org/volunteer,” Squier said. “We’d love it.”
Animal lovers are also needed, said Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society spokesman, Tracy Elliott.
A shelter in Jupiter, Florida, asked for help, and now 35 animals — 15 dogs and 20 cats — are en route to Chicago, Elliott said Friday afternoon.
The shelter, Furry Friends, needed to make space for strays and displaced animals from the storm.
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“They send their adoptable animals elsewhere, so they have room,” Elliott said.
After being dropped off at 510 N. LaSalle St., they will receive health checkups and in about two weeks will be up online, profile pic and all, on their website, and adoption ready.
To adopt or foster, go to Anticruelty.org/adoptable
PAWS Chicago is also doing its part, said Sarah McDonald, a spokeswoman.
Three trucks are leaving Saturday morning, bound for Florida, where they expect to pick up at least 40 pets and bring them back to Chicago, where they have a “state of the art” medical center to treat injured animals or even “fearful” ones.
”We are pulling from multiple shelters,” McDonald said, including one in Fort Myers that was “decimated,” with a portion of its roof torn off and burst pipes.
To adopt, donate, volunteer or help, go to pawschicago.org/ian.