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After Hurricane Ian hits Fort Myers, Black neighborhood residents say they aren’t counting on much help

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Shannon Tolbert and her cousins had no power two days after Hurricane Ian made landfall, so they cooled off in the shade of a compact SUV trunk Friday afternoon in front of the house.

They live in Dunbar, a historically Black area of Fort Myers that also houses a growing Hispanic and Latino population. Lining the roads were uprooted trees, straggled power lines, piles of fence remnants and storm debris from Ian’s Category 4 winds.

“Every time we have a storm, we’re the last ones to get power,” said Tolbert's cousin, lifetime Dunbar resident Valorie Simmons, steel factory worker. Simmons' daughter Cherell Lindsey nodded along with Tolbert's daughter, who was lounging in the SUV's back seat.

“It’s expected," Simmons said. "Where it's Black and brown people ... we get it last."

Black residents of Dunbar said they fear the aftermath of Hurricane Ian will be no different, saying the city’s wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods typically have better power grids and get power back sooner.

“That’s going to be No. 1 priority. Anything where it’s majority people of color, it’s going to be last,” said Tolbert, a dental assistant.

About 1.3 million Floridians remained without power Saturday, officials said during a weekend press conference. Florida Power and Light Company said it's working on restoring power to affecting customers, reporting as of 10 a.m. it has restored power "where possible" to two-thirds of customers, according to a Saturday press release from the company, with about 700,000 remaining.

The company estimated power for "most customers" in Fort Myers' Lee County, where about 73% of households still lack power, would be restored by Saturday.

"The road is challenging, but we won't back down and we won't stop working until every customer is restored," Eric Silagy, CEO and chairman, said in a press release.

Still, Dunbar residents have grown accustomed to relying on themselves and looking out for each other. Tolbert conserves gasoline usage, only running the generator for the refrigerator. She keeps the windows open at night to let brisk air in.

“We can survive off anything,” Tolbert said. She, Simmons and Lindsey said care packages are rare. 

"If they do do it in our neighborhood, it's only one stop, one shop. And they don't do it in multiple places," Lindsey said.

In Dunbar, streets and parks are named for prominent late Black activists and leaders:  Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican baseball player of African descent also known for his charity work in Latin America; Ella Mae Lee, philanthropist and entrepreneur; and Veronica Shoemaker, civil rights activist, flower shop owner and first Black city council member.

A few minutes away off Michigan Avenue, half-a-mile north of the Lee County Black History Society, lives Lorieann Thurman. She’s a truck driver at a waste management facility that she says is now underwater on leveled Fort Myers Beach.

“I’ve been here all my life, but this was the most traumatic storm ever. Trees down, and people’s windows blowing out of their house,” she said. “(Ian) was very disrespectful because he didn't just come and go, he just stayed right there. He lingered. He made sure he came to show you that God is still in control.”

Roughly 16 miles from the Gulf coast, the Dunbar community is a few miles south of the Caloosahatchee River that runs through the city. It's tucked in 33916, a zip code with a median income of $37,740, according to U.S. Census estimates, and a per-capita income of $21,700. About a quarter of people live below the poverty line.

The Dunbar area was in Evacuation Zones C and D. While risks are less, the zones are still vulnerable to serious hurricane damage. But storm preparation to weather any aftermath can be difficult for low-income households.

“Everybody don't have or couldn't go out and get what they needed because they didn't have the finances,” she said.

Thurman echoed Tolbert on the power situation.

“No matter how long I've lived in Fort Myers and seen storms, it's been like that. This neighborhood that's full of people of color, always comes last,” she said. “The people that have more money, that’s who gets service first,” she said, adding that it makes her feel “they look down upon us, and they are servicing the ones there that can afford generators.”

Her cousin across the street, Latronia Latson — 61, a former private duty nurse for seniors who is now on disability — said she was afraid to evacuate because of health concerns. She didn’t want to shelter with others for fear of catching the coronavirus. Her windows were blown out and along with other debris, a tall palm tree toppled in her yard.

Lindsay Garconvil, 15, shows damage in her bedroom in the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers on Sept. 30, 2022.

“The fight with the wind — we had mattresses and stuff up to the window, and that wind was so strong, it was fighting against us,” said Latson, who lives there with her granddaughter and daughter. “We did what we had to do to survive.”   

On Friday afternoon, Haitian immigrant Marie Fleurette Radius sprawled on a blanket on the front porch with her baby granddaughter Sarah-Gasnaya, her grandson Christ was playing in the yard and steam was rising from a pot of rice reheating on the back porch.

“I woke up soaking wet,” Christ said of Ian’s rains.

Their big sister Lindsay Garconvil, 15, said her window broke as she was on her bed, shards of glass surrounding her. The family rode out the hurricane in a different rental, which sustained more damage, so they found this house to move into. Still, it wasn’t without its own damage, with leaks and broken windows.

“Two of the windows broke. Tables were flying everywhere. It wasn’t faring well,” Radius said in French as her daughter helped translate.

Now without power, when night sets in, Radius said baby Sarah is afraid of the dark, so they have to leave a flashlight on.

Fort Myers resident Marie Fleurette Radius and her grandchildren cool off outside after the power remains out following Hurricane Ian on Sept. 30, 2022.

Radius called to check on her daughter, the kids’ mom, Marie Stinfil, a nursing assistant who was at work that day, two days after the storm.

“It’s very stressful,” Stinfil said by phone, exasperated. “We lost a lot of food.”

Back a couple miles west, Tolbert recalled stopping by a local eatery that only took cash after the storm. A white couple in front of her didn’t have any, just cards. She insisted to pay the $35 bill for them. “I said, ‘you don't have to pay me back. Don't even worry about it,’” she said.

Tolbert and her cousins all said – they just "keep pushing," and help each other.

Her eyes welling with tears, Tolbert said, “We all bleed the same thing.”

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