FORT MYERS, Fla. — There is an unmistakable glow in a Fort Myers neighborhood this Christmas season. They are the holiday lights hiding the hard times of Southwest Florida.
“It has been devastating here,” Darlene Carswell said.
Carswell and her husband, Robert, found their home surrounded by the floodwaters of Hurricane Ian.
“Oh it was scary. It was scary,” she said.
Three months after the storm came ashore, the Carswell home is surrounded by thousands of Christmas lights.
“We were not gonna put it up because of everything that everyone has lost,” Carswell said.
After numerous neighbors inquired, Darlene and Robert felt compelled to repeat their tradition of two decades. Robert is a Desert Storm veteran who was determined to salvage Christmas.
“I’m a combat veteran. So I know shell shock,” Robert Carswell said.
Daylight reveals the scars of a community still struggling to heal.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” Fort Myers resident Shamare Brown said.
Holiday decorations are overshadowed by piles of hurricane debris.
“It’s so different now. It’s entirely different," Fort Myers photographer Fred Driver said. "It’s so devastating. It’s unbelievable."
Life after the Category Four hurricane is tough for Misty Flack who lives in a manufactured home.
“Sleeping on the pullout couch every night. Warn out, tired. Just trying to make every day livable,” Flack said.
She has no power, no water and nowhere else to go. Eight feet of water took nearly everything she owned.
“Very scary times. I had both the dogs. They were with me and didn’t drown," Flack said. Just a few doors away, one of her neighbors drowned in his car. “I saw them pull the body out. Just a terrible way to have to go."
Throughout Fort Myers, there is a dizzying sea of signs from contractors promising to help. Flack says she was swindled out of her $20,000 check from FEMA.
“People fed off us. I’ve wanted to give up numerous times," Flack said. "But then again, I have nothing else waiting for me. So I have to keep pushing.”
Damage from Hurricane Ian was indiscriminate. While Fort Myers Meteorologist Allyson Raye was on the air warning viewers, her home was being ravaged by 3 feet of stormwater.
“I feel really fortunate through all of this,” Raye said.
Like many in Fort Myers, she and her husband are living in a trailer, now decorated with Christmas lights.
“This one’s rough. Not only do I not have a home, about a month before the storm, a little over a month before the storm, I also lost my father suddenly," Raye said. "It’s a lot to process. But I’m alive and I have a job and I have a husband and, you know."
WBBH-TV was the only Fort Myers television station that was not forced to evacuate.
“I’ve never been more nervous in my life for a storm,” Ray said.
Today, with the death toll in Florida at 144 people, Raye reflects on whether she could have done more.
"Once it’s all said and done, you’re thinking back. Did I say enough? I thought I was shouting from the rooftops, but clearly people were still there," she said. "People were in still danger. People lost their lives and you reflect on that and it’s hard. It’s guilt.”
Heartache is omnipresent in Southwest Florida and so is hunger. The Harry Chapin Food Bank has seen a dramatic increase in need from people who have never relied on assistance.
“It has been very challenging sometimes to fulfill the need in the community. I would say we’re doing probably a million pounds per week,” the program outreach manager Monica Correa said.
Fort Myers Beach took the brunt of Hurricane Ian. A place normally bustling with snowbirds is virtually a ghost town.
“When you come down here to the beach you see that people have been affected very, very badly,” Fort Myers resident Shamare Brown said.
Nearly three months after the storm, the catastrophic damage is everywhere and so are the signs of Christmas. For 27 years, Fort Myers Beach has erected a live poinsettia tree. This year, in a show of solidarity, many visitors brought their own.
“Sure, it might seem like everything has been taken away from us, but we’ve still got each other. We still have each other,” Brown said.
Back at the elaborately decorated home of Robert and Darlene Carswell, motorists witness a picture perfect winter wonderland. It is a welcome respite from the rugged reality of an unforgettable storm.
“You have to go back to the real world. I mean, it’s fun to play house, but you’ve got to go back to the real world,” Darlene said.
As she hands out candy canes, Darlene delivers a message of hope to a family that stopped by to see the lights.
“Merry Christmas. God bless you guys. 2023 is gonna be good. It’s got to be good,” Darlene said.