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In Florida, one Sanibel Island resident recalls being rescued after Hurricane Ian

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We're going to stay in Lee County, Fla., for a moment, specifically Sanibel Island, which remains cut off from mainland Florida unless you travel by boat. The hurricane collapsed the island's only bridge. And as repairs began today, I caught up with long-time resident and travel writer Chelle Walton. When Ian first made landfall, she was not sure if she and her husband would survive as the water rushed into their house.

CHELLE WALTON: So we swam around. I just tried to get things out of the way for my husband, who has Parkinson's disease, so he could not get hurt.

SUMMERS: With the water up to their chests, they were able to make one call to their son, Aaron, before their phones died. They escaped and got help from neighbors, but they had no cell service or internet, and no way off the island for three days. As my talk with Chelle Walton continued, she said her son kept working to reach his parents and to send help.

WALTON: I think finally, my son Aaron's efforts paid off because instead of just the normal little cart that they bring around with the fire department, we got like five policemen. And a pickup truck picked us up and went and helped my husband out of the house and into the car and helped us onto the ferry. And ran into a friend of mine on the ferry who happened to have, you know, a phone that worked and cell service. And he let me call my son. And so that was the first time I was able to talk to my son. And he was very relieved, to say the least. But he was, like, stunned. So he came and picked us up at the ferry landing. And we hugged a bunch. Let's just say that. It was one of the happiest days and one of the saddest days, because I was so sad that I put him through so much.

SUMMERS: Chelle, after you escaped, you told our colleague Quil Lawrence that you and your husband were able to go and stay with your son, Aaron. Have you been able to return to your home?

WALTON: Oh, heavens, no. They're they're still working on the causeway there. They're thinking maybe they'll have a temporary road going there by the end of the month. My son told me this morning that the post office on Sanibel, when the post office people or federal people, whoever went out there to try to assess repairs, could not get in - did not want to get in because there's an alligator in the post office.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh. You know, you have lived in Sanibel Island for about 40 years. So you must be no stranger to living through a hurricane season. But this time sounded like it was different.

WALTON: Every hurricane is different. And the last one we experienced, the last bad one was Irma. We ended up leaving the island. And the storm ended up shifting. And the eye sat over top of us there. So needless to say, we're like, well, we would have been safer on Sanibel. Every experience you've had kind of colors your decisions. As my husband looked at me and said, when we were in the attic, we picked the wrong hurricane to ride out, I'm like, yeah, we did. But we'd never been through a surge like that. So like I say, every storm is different.

SUMMERS: Can you describe for our listeners what Sanibel Island normally looks like compared to what it looks like right now?

WALTON: Oh, there is no comparison. Sanibel is the most beautiful island in Florida. I've written like a dozen books about Florida. I've traveled the entire state. Sanibel is the crown jewel. It's the most beautiful spot in the state. It's just the beaches. It's the fact that like two-thirds of the island is protected against development, natural wildlife refuge. There's a lot of people invested into making Sanibel come back.

SUMMERS: As you and others in your community are beginning the long process of recovery, what is the main thing that you think people at the state and federal level who are engaged with this need to know about Sanibel and what it needs right now?

WALTON: I think they're pretty well in tune. We had President Biden down here this week along with our governor. They just need to remember that there are people there - and I think they do, I'm not saying they don't - that it's not just the tourism dollars they're losing, the bed tax and the business taxes. It's the heart, it's the people who make up the island and love it.

SUMMERS: Well, we can certainly tell that you do. Chelle Walton is a travel writer and a resident of Florida's Sanibel Island. Thank you again for sharing your story with us.

WALTON: You're very welcome. Thank you for asking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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