Ian’s Unnoticed Aftermath: A Meditation

Night and Morning in Orlando

[SIDEBAR:(CNN) – After Hurricane Ian obliterated communities in Florida, rescue crews going door to door in search of survivors are reporting more deaths, and residents grappling with loss are facing a long, daunting recovery.

As of Tuesday, October 4, at least 109 people have been reported killed by the hurricane in the United States, with 105 of those deaths in Florida . . . . Ian also claimed the lives of four people in North Carolina.]

Chuck Fager: As Hurricane Ian made its destructive way across central Florida, it stirred flashacks for me of a traumatic scene from my visit there in 2012.

It was in February, warm in Florida, cold at home in Carolina. My second daughter Molly, a nurse in Vegas, had decided to get married on Valentine’s Day, and wanted to do it somewhere far from the western desert. Fortunately she’s also an ace internet travel bargain hunter. Molly has snagged amazing cut-rate tickets to Paris, Germany, Hawaii, and several other exotic places. She had a longtime school friend in Florida, and opted to meet up in Orlando. It is far from Vegas, and compared to Nevada’s Sin City it’s no great shakes. Or it isn’t, unless you’re a Disney freak, which I haven’t been since the late Annette Funicello left the Mouseketeers; that was in 1959.

But if it lacked the glam, the city had one big practical advantage: Amtrak trains ran daily from New York City to Miami, and stopped in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was living, and Orlando.

Wendy and I took this train, arriving at night. Daylight revealed the area as not just pedestrian but often eerie. We stayed away from Disney World and the other big parks, and outside the penumbra of that glittering ghetto. It was the slow season there anyway, post-Christmas and pre-Spring break.

Besides, the region was still feeling the impact of the massive housing crash of 2008: to get anywhere, we drove past many long curving rows of houses, thrown together on spec in the bubble’s peak frenzy. Once a hustler’s dream, they were painted in cheery bright colors to dazzle the suckers —but had long since morphed into a continuing daytime nightmare, still standing empty after three years and counting, the sheen long since weathered off their kitschy exteriors.

Closer to our AirBnB, we noticed what looked like decayed medieval ruins, poking up like giant rotted teeth among a stretch of palm trees behind an uneven grey wall: all that remained of what was meant to rise as an Oriental rival to Disney, financed by Chinese money. Each time I passed I thought it could one day be revived as, say, The Ghost Town From Another Planet, or some such.

Valentine’s was Tuesday. Molly and her fiance Marco did their nuptials at a busy county building, and we celebrated by taking in a dinner theatre at a big arena. The show featured colorfully-costumed “knights” carrying long pointed lances, riding horses draped with quiltlike caparisons. They galloped and fenced and jousted while we were served an overpriced rubber chicken repast. It was more interesting than some wedding receptions I’ve muddled through.

The next morning it was time to head home. Wendy and I were dropped off outside the Amtrak station. It was in busy downtown Orlando, amid shops and stores and offices, people coming and going on their midweek errands. We grabbed our bags and headed in.

We had arrived after dark. By daylight the station looked like a restored mission, all white, with many arches and topped with small cupolas. Climbing onto the train, I quickly grabbed a window seat, so I could gaze at the passing country.

The train whistled and began to move, very slowly. The long station walkway slid by, then we passed a railing at its far end. The train was still creeping along; Why so slow, I wondered.

Then I saw why: within a few feet beyond the concourse, there was a crowd of people.

Not waiting passengers: homeless folks. The signs were familiar: ragged bedrolls, worn backpacks, blue tarps here and there, the remains of a cooking fire, lots of trash.

The train was still trundling through downtown. The trackside crowd was clumped and spread out right alongside the back entrances to the prosperous and bustling storefronts and offices we had just walked past into the station. The buildings were like a wall: we couldn’t see the people from that side. (I think we weren’t supposed to.)

But they were there, in droves.

The train began to pick up speed. My sense was that the engineers were well familiar with the scene outside, saw how close the folks were, knew that some wandered unpredictably, and how easily fatal a collision could be.

The ragtag camps of transients went on and on.

I later learned that Florida has the third highest numbers of homeless among the 50 states. It makes sense, especially in the winter months, for any who can get there.

At last the train was out of the city, swaying north on tracks that took us well inland from the tourist/snowbird centers along the peninsula’s coasts: into scrub forests and wetlands, small towns, few stops, and many lonely, shabby trailers.

The Southeast is the USA’s trailer heartland, I also found out later; and Florida is among the states with the highest percentage of residents housed that way. Florida features some big trailer settlements, kept trim, pruned and respectable. Yet few of them, even at the high end, are any match for a Category Three.

Beyond the crowded theme parks and well-heeled senior colonies, Florida also has plenty of poor fulltime residents, many dispersed in the woods, largely unnoticed, isolated, in rusty and decrepit trailers; sitting ducks. Amtrak was taking me on an unexpected tour of this unpublicized but vast region. It flickered and unrolled past my window until the sun was long gone.

I don’t recall thinking about hurricanes then; it wasn’t the season. But this long vista has often come back since, as the warming-swollen Atlantic storms have smashed their way ashore, sometimes aimed at us in North Carolina (#3 on the top trailer states list; South Carolina is #1). And even now after Ian has dissipated, the image is redelivered in the photos that accompany the still-growing casualty list.

The latest reports tell of emergency workers “knocking on every door” in their areas to check for survivors. That’s good. But I’m doubtful about their numbers, which in Florida now exceed a hundred: what if the doors, and the structures they opened into just a few days ago, are now both piles of rain-waterlogged debris?

Post-Ian south central Florida. Knocking on every door?

And what of those folks clustered along or around the Amtrak routes, who didn’t even have a door? If they heard, or compre-hended the evacuation orders, where did they go, and how did they get there? And who was counting the ones that the rescuers may have missed?

Other than, maybe, the alligators?

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