As Hurricane Ian hammered Florida Wednesday night, Julie Hittle remained glued to her phone, desperately waiting for updates on how her brother and his girlfriend were faring in the devastating storm.
“As the water started to rise, he would text me, ‘The water is about 2 feet from the window sill,’” Hittle told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Then he would send another, ‘The water is 1 foot.’ Then, ‘Now the water is in the apartment.’”
The next update was even more dire: Hittle’s brother, Chip Aldridge, his girlfriend, Suzanne Merlo, their cocker spaniel, Kobie, and a friend were all climbing through a window to escape the rising stormwaters in the one-story Naples home. As they waited for help on top of the hood of their car, they were rescued by a kind stranger paddling down the road in a kayak and dropped safely on a covered sidewalk, Hittle said.
Eventually, after walking half a mile in the dark and ditching some of their belongings to lighten their load, they were able to find temporary shelter at a local motel. On Thursday, Hittle said her brother was forced to come to terms with the reality that “everything they had is now gone.”
“Their apartment is completely destroyed,” Hittle told The Daily Beast. “They lost everything they have. Then [Chip] got a text from his boss, who owns a local grocery store, that there was flooding there, as well. So now he has no home or a job. He is stuck.”
That harsh reality is shared by thousands of residents across central Florida whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by the Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday. At least seven people are dead after floodwaters trapped residents in their homes. An estimated two million people still remain without power in what has now been deemed the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States. Sanibel Island, which is about an hour north of Naples, was hit with a “biblical storm surge,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference. On Thursday afternoon, Ian left Florida behind in tatters, making its way up toward the Carolinas.
“It’s the storm surge factor that has been particularly devastating,” Hittle explained. “It is like a mini tsunami. The water damage is terrible and now the power is out so mold is going to grow everywhere.”
Aldridge, who has been unable to get a reliable cell signal, was unreachable on Thursday afternoon.
His nephew, Drew Hittle, isn’t quite sure what his uncle will do next. Aldridge, who had moved to Naples to take care of Drew’s grandfather—who died last year from COVID—had thought the storm would bypass his home.
He told The Daily Beast that money is tight for the couple, who work in the store’s deli section. The two had no insurance for their belongings, which were ruined by the hurricane, and their seawater-filled car appears to be a total loss.
“My uncle was saying they ended up staying in a La Quinta Inn, which let them stay there because they had nowhere else to go,” Hittle said. “They're in a shelter now, camped out there while they’re trying to figure it out.”
Julie Hittle noted that the last time she spoke to her brother he seemed “fully aware of what happened.” To try to help with the damage, Hittle set up a GoFundMe for her brother and his girlfriend. As of Thursday evening, it had raised nearly $10,000 of its $20,000 goal—up from its original $8,000 target.
“Yesterday, he sounded high-energy and [was] running on adrenaline,” she told The Daily Beast. “Today, he had this sound of devastation. I think it was the reality that it’s not just him, it’s everyone he knows. Everyone has to start over.”
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