On September 9th I and my two colleagues Seth Herald and Megan Jelinger traveled down to Florida to document Hurricane Irma and the people who were affected by it. We drove through the same storm that had wiped out the Caribbean and wreaked havoc on parts of Florida. The following are my images and writings on covering Hurricane Irma and spending time with the people who came home to find their lives changed by its wrath.
The day is growing late and the shadows growing longer as Juan Zumaya maneavuers his small boat through the deep black waters that now cover what used to be Bonita Commons, a neighborhood in the city of Bonita Springs, Florida. The puncturing smell of raw sewage, gasoline, and rot hang over the entire area. The wrath of Hurricane Irma might not have been what most Floridians had expected, but for those living in Bonita Commons, the storm came with merciless ferocity.
"We've had floods before, but never like this." Juan comments.
The flood waters had risen in the week before, after fallout from Hurricane Harvey drifted through the area, they had yet to recede when Irma arrived.
Personal belongings float in the yards of half submerged houses, occasionally other boats can be heard, heading out to either rescue those who stayed or to retrieve personal belongings from homes. As the sun sets over the horizon the mosquitos come out in full force and most of those who stand on the high ground of the main road pack up what they gathered and leave to wherever it is they are staying for the time being.
It is early afternoon, and the heat of the day is upon Bonita Springs. Looking out into the flooded neighborhood is blinding as the noon sun reflects of the surface of the fetid water. One man who is putting gas into his boat makes a joke about alligators swimming around at night on his street. It is true though, the day before an alligator had been spotted near the back of the neighborhood near the overpass.
Jose Gonzales Jr. and Jesus R Angel are wading through the tea colored waters with two boats in tow. They are helping Jose's parents gather the remaining personal belongings from their flooded home on Pawley Avenue.
The Gonzales family had evacuated North to Alabama as Hurricane Irma made its way up the Florida Peninsula. When they received the all clear, they returned to find their home flooded. In their haste to evacuate they didn't have time to pack up all their personal belongings, and upon returning had stood for a while on the main road by their neighborhood in disbelief.
Jesse Martinez, son in law to Jose and Olivia Gonzales, lives not even a mile up the road from Bonita Commons and armed with a pair of old waders and several kayaks, joined the family as they transferred their belongings from their home to his.
Going through the belongings that were ruined in the flood brought Jose and Olivia's daughter Selena Gonzales to tears. Pictures, diplomas, and family heirlooms ruined beyond recovery overnight.
Jose and Olivia are pulled on boats to the dry land on the main road. The family jokes with each other as they leave. Despite the severity of the situation, Jose Jr. says his parents are just glad everyone is ok and for that they are happy.
Luis Arango was one of the lucky few whose home remained safe from the floodwaters. Resting on a small hill just a few feet higher than the other homes, the water crept up to within several feet to his garage then stopped.
"I had installed some cameras before we evacuated to Lake City, and I was watching the water rise higher and higher, and I kept thinking 'This is it'" He comments.
With his wife and daughter still in Lake City, Arengo enlisted the help of his friends Carlos Hernandez and Walter Crespo, as well as Crespo's 13 year old son Jonathan in returning to his home.
The first steps to take were transporting a generator and gasoline to the home, then taking down the steel sheets that cover the windows and doors of the home. A full days work in nearly 100 degree heat.
Walter Crespo spoke of he and his traveling from near Tampa to help Luis. "No other country in the world is like the US, our name even, it isn't like France, or Spain that is just a name, it is the UNITED states, and when we pull together and unite we can help each other overcome anything. That is what I am trying to show my son here."
At 2:30 in the afternoon the hot Florida sun is beating down on everyone. Florida natives comment on the heat as they wipe sweat from their brow and avert their eyes, but with a smile add "I mean it is Florida". While the heat of the day is to be expected, what is most supprising among those who've lost so much is the sense of camaraderie and community.
Several people came down to Bonita Springs from other parts of Florida with their bass boats and canoes in tow to help clear brush, transport people in and out of the flooded neighborhood, and to bring food and water to those who need it.
Adorned in little more than a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes Jay Berbue and several friends from other parts of Florida go about trying to clear the flooded streets of fallen trees and branches. The sound of chainsaws and boat motors has become a background drone as Jay and his partners continue working in the hot sun.
"I was about to leave to go up to Canada with my boat and do some fishing, but when we saw this about happen I called up some of my friends and we came out as soon as we could." Jay comments as he wipes sweat from his under his hat.
The day is long, but as the sun dips down towards the horizon scores of others like Jay have shown up to hand out food, water, and blankets.
While the full power of Hurricane Irma was not felt in Florida as it was in Barbuda and Cuba the devastation in Bonita Springs will remain a scar for quite some time. As the water continues to stand stagnant in Bonita Commons' streets, mosquitos breed and the risk of mosquito born diseases rise in the area. Black mold sets in quickly after floods, and can quickly over take the inside of a home making it completely inhospitable. The residents who continue to filter in will have to deal with these battles in their uncertain future, but for now most are just thankful to have the ones they love safe and by their side.