Their father, 87, evacuated for Hurricane Ian. Rattled by storm surge, he died in his car

The day Hurricane Ian hit Florida, Tom Cummiskey, 87, had evacuated his Fort Myers trailer and was driving about 35 miles east from the coast, fielding calls on his flip phone from friends and family urging him to get off the road.

“I told him just to stay there,” said son Jerry Cummiskey, recalling the call he had when his father pulled into the inland town of LaBelle around lunchtime on Wednesday, Sept. 28. “He said he was going to get a room. But he didn’t.”

It was the last time the two spoke, ending a 24-hour stretch where Jerry Cummiskey and his wife, Teresa, thought they had helped steer Tom to safety from afar as they kept in touch with him from their home in New Jersey.

READ MORE: Historic storm surge. Record flooding. Ian’s lesson in the rising risk of hurricanes

The day before, he agreed to ride out Hurricane Ian in their vacation house on a canal about 45 miles north of Fort Myers in Port Charlotte, only to leave there in a hurry the morning of the storm after a forecast of up to 16 feet of storm surge for the Port Charlotte area spooked him.

“I argued with him. My husband argued with him,” said Teresa, who correctly predicted the Port Charlotte home would escape Ian with only minor damage. “He said he was going to drive east, and then maybe south.”

Tom Cummiskey, far right, in an undated family photo. He was a drowning victim in Hurricane Ian.
Tom Cummiskey, far right, in an undated family photo. He was a drowning victim in Hurricane Ian.

Police found Cummiskey dead in his submerged car in a drainage culvert outside a Fort Myers Publix, about two miles from the trailer the former salesman made his retirement home.

The body was found the day after Ian hit, Sept. 29, but the Cummiskeys assume Tom died the prior night trying to make it home through the Category 4 storm. A brief Lee County medical examiner’s report on Ian deaths said an 87-year-old man died of drowning and the kind of injuries sustained in a car wreck.

That report didn’t name Cummiskey, and authorities in Lee County did not provide confirmation of Cummiskey’s death. The account of his death relies on what relatives said they were told, including conversations with sheriff’s deputies, a private coroner, a tow-truck driver and a Publix manager who said Cummiskey’s car was found on Thursday, Sept. 29.

Families worry from afar when communication fails

Cummiskey is one of more than 100 people known to have died from Hurricane Ian, most of them drowning victims. The hours before and after his death reflect another common thread when hurricanes threaten Florida, a retirement haven where family support systems can be multiple states away.

“We have received a ton of calls regarding: ‘I haven’t been in contact with my loved one. I haven’t spoken to them in four days,’ ’’ said Claudette Smith, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte County, where the eye of Ian crossed shortly after making landfall around 3 p.m. on Sept. 28. “We have thousands of requests to check on loved ones. Our deputies can’t physically do them all. It’s been really difficult.”

READ MORE: Causes of death in Hurricane Ian: Many drownings but also post-storm suicides, accidents

Florida set up an online clearinghouse for missing-person reports after Ian, and the American Red Cross hotline 1-800-REDCROSS also is helping with family reunifications for people who are elderly or have medical hardships.

The Cummiskey family learned of Tom’s death Sept. 30 after asking the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to check on his home. Jerry got a call that Friday morning from a deputy informing him his father had been found dead. The notification followed an increasingly alarmed string of unanswered calls, texts and emails to a man known for keeping in touch.

“I left him a message Friday morning saying, ‘We are about to report you missing,’ ” Teresa said.

Hendry County, which includes LaBelle, had two shelters open when Cummiskey arrived there, said Emergency Management Director Bob Pastula. He said hotels were in high demand by evacuees from coastal counties, but the shelters had plenty of room.

“If they had called us, we would have gotten him into a shelter,” Pastula said of the unidentified motel Cummiskey said he visited.

Cummiskey’s drive west to Fort Myers on Route 80, though, would have taken him through tropical-storm winds in the early afternoon as conditions deteriorated, according to an online weather summary. Leaving LaBelle also would have taken him past Hendry County’s emergency center. “We certainly would have taken him in there,” Pastula said.

A new full-time resident

Cummiskey was living alone in Fort Myers, where he used to winter with his wife of 29 years, Dottie, who died in 2006. The grandfather moved to Florida full time this summer after deciding to sell his longtime house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

The Korean War veteran made a career selling equipment for municipal water systems in the Philadelphia area after leaving the Air Force. An amateur pilot after the war, Cummiskey liked to fish, and doted on the poodles he and his wife kept, according to an obituary provided by his son Jerry.

In later years, Cummiskey would call a friend daily with a reminder to watch “Wheel of Fortune” and insisted the family hold joint birthday celebrations with his ex-wife, their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, according to son Tom Cummiskey.

“He really gravitated toward making everyone feel good,” the younger Tom Cummiskey said.

Back issues made sleeping difficult if he wasn’t in a recliner, but it didn’t stop Cummiskey from driving where he wanted.

That included a multi-day trip to see family and friends in Pennsylvania over the summer, where he stopped in for a meal with Kay Kopczyk. The two 87-year-olds went to middle school together, and remained close enough that Tom called her multiple times a day.

“In the morning, he would tell me what was in my newspaper because he looked at it on his computer down there,” Kopczyk said. “He would call me in the evening to check on me.”

Those calls continued as Cummiskey tried to make his way to a safe place during Ian. His son and daughter-in-law’s vacation home was under evacuation orders the day before Ian arrived. But with impact windows and a concrete structure, it seemed a far sturdier place to be than Cummiskey’s Fort Myers trailer. He spent the night of Sept. 27 there.

The next morning, neighbors that had helped Cummiskey get settled in the house decided they were going to head elsewhere for the storm. Teresa Cummiskey was watching her Port Charlotte home’s Ring doorbell camera from New Jersey when she saw Tom leave, too — hastily enough that he left medicine on the counter and gave up on locking the front door when the key gave him trouble.

LaBelle was about an hour southeast, and Kopczyk said she was talking to Cummiskey when he pulled into a motel parking lot on the hunt for a place to stay.

“He called me back and said the rooms were all taken. And there were no rooms available anywhere,” she said. Kopczyk said she suggested he just plant himself in a hotel lobby or even a hospital waiting room until the storm passed. They agreed to talk later.

“I said you call me when you plunk down for the night,” Kopczyk said. “He said, ‘I will.’ That was the last I heard from him.”