September 28 will long be remembered by Floridians, and those who call Florida their winter home. Hurricane Ian blasted ashore, the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever make landfall on the U.S. mainland. Ian made other unwelcome records. The deadliest hurricane in Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, it has cut short the lives of nearly 140 people—and sadly, the toll will likely grow. Some reports suggest property damage could top $63 billion. But what effect did Ian have on the RV community?
Florida watches its population swell by around 5 percent each winter as the snowbirds arrive. It’s hard to get a handle on just how many snowbirds flutter in. One estimate suggests about 900,000 to a million non-Floridians stay in the Everglades State for a least a month each year. Of those, a large number come with their motorhomes and trailers. One of the state’s Chambers of Commerce boasts that the state has more than 900 licensed RV parks, that sport 125,000 sites. How many more stay on properties of friends, or camp out in government-owned parks can’t even be fathomed.
“The park is destroyed” thanks to Ian
But when Hurricane Ian’s winds and storm surges blasted ashore, the numbers of available sites surely decreased. The Fort Myers area is certainly witness to that devastation. Days after Ian left the area, it was still difficult—if not impossible—to get a clear picture. At Fort Myers Beach, the Ebb Tide RV Park, which bills itself as “a medium size, senior adult RV park,” there are plenty of questions. RVers who had either left their rigs there, or were planning on coming this winter, want answers. Ebb Tide’s general manager, Bob Beasley, responded with a social media post.
“I am sorry to inform you that this disaster is so huge that after only a few days from this catastrophic event and inspections, that we are still dealing with search crews and FEMA, etc., that there are no answers to anyone’s questions at this time.” He added, “Bottom line is: The park is destroyed and so was the office.” The future for the Ebb Tide isn’t clear. The park’s owners suggested it could be a month or more before RV owners will be able to learn about the status of their rigs, and how to proceed with insurance claims.
Not all of the southern end of Florida has suffered that kind of devastation. About 100 miles north of the Fort Myers area, and in the center of the panhandle, is Avon Park. There the managers of Adelaide Shores RV Resort report that while Ian did kick up a ruckus, “For the most part, our resort looks great.” Within a few days of Ian’s visit, the park had power and running water. Telephone service was still another matter, and cell service and internet were sketchy, at best. Staff was busy with cleanup, and planning to call November 1st their “opening day.”
“Don’t count Florida out”
From nearly complete devastation, to minor irritants—reports coming out of Florida RV parks show a wide range of problems. Bobby Cornwell, the president of the Florida RV Parks and Campgrounds Association, was quick to tell RVers, “Don’t count Florida out.” We spoke with him mid-week, and Cornwell was up to his elbows checking in on many of the 400-plus member campgrounds. “Yes, there are some devastated areas,” he said. “But the good news is there are lots of RV parks and the majority are open, or close to opening soon.”
Cornwell said that at the time it was difficult to make contact with the parks in the areas that took the brunt of Ian’s cruelty. He was aware of three to five RV parks that were “severely damaged or wiped out,” suggesting it could be “years or never” before they were operational again. However, he wanted RVers to not arbitrarily assume that their winter visits were scrubbed. “Be patient,” he counseled. Don’t cancel your plans until you’re able to make contact with parks that you’d normally have on your travel planner.
Fort Myers to Naples “should be good”
Inland, Cornwell told us, from Fort Meyers to Naples, “should be good in a couple of weeks.” Of member parks that the organization has been able to contact, 34 were “temporarily closed,” because of lacking power or some infrastructure damage. But that, he reminded us, was just a temporary situation. He did add that of the parks that were open in hard-hit areas, many were presently seeing a run-up of disaster-related callers. Insurance company adjusters and restoration contractors, for example.
As far as Florida’s RV park owners are concerned, “Fort Myers is not destroyed,” Bobby Cornwell reminded us. “Nor is Southwest Florida. The situation is changing quite rapidly. A week ago it was terrible, but now it’s much better.”
Readers report losses
We heard from RVtravel.com readers who’ve been affected by Hurricane Ian. At this point, we’re happy to report we’ve heard of none of our readers being injured in the storm. But they did have tales to tell.
Shelly O. lives part of the year in New Mexico, and follows the “hummingbird season.” When the hummers leave New Mexico for the winter, she and her family hop in the RV and head south to Cape Coral, where they have a winter house. Shelly wrote, “We watched on TV as the Ian moved so slowly over the area and the back half brought the water up so high. The storm surge brought at least a foot-and-a-half of water into our house and the 145 mph winds caused roof and tree damage. As a result our lovely house has to be gutted.”
In addition to the physical damage, Ian’s visit has left Shelly with other issues. “Now we are trying to decide whether to go at the end of November. We have our camping reservations, which we make a year in advance, but will the house be back together enough to be livable? The mobile home park where we usually park our RV was also destroyed. We think the city will bend the rules and let us park in our driveway; usually there is a five-day limit. Will it be too devastating to be there?” All difficult questions.
But Shelly does have a positive evaluation. “We realize we are luckier than most in the area. First, we did not lose our lives; second, we are lucky to even have a second home; and third, our house is still standing and can be repaired. So we are grateful.” Still the question, “Should we go?”
“My wife persuaded me to evacuate”
Another RVtravel.com reader with ties to Cape Coral is Steve S. Steve isn’t a snowbird—he and his family live there in their sticks-and-bricks home. That put him at the scene of the action when Ian came through. “Tuesday, before Ian’s landfall, my wife persuaded me to evacuate in our motorhome.” A good call! “Considering the path of the storm, our only option was southeast Florida, so we high-tailed it to Key Largo. We’d waited longer than we should have so the trip was dicey with high winds and torrential rains across the Everglades.”
When Steve and his wife got back, what did they find? “We faced almost total destruction of our house. Roof, fences, ceilings, all gone or damaged. We still have no power, no water. Thankfully we’re able to ‘rough it’ in our Class A.” Another reminder for the rest of us. Have your RV “ready to go” in these unknown times, when a disaster—natural or otherwise—could be just around the corner.
Other readers who are genuine Florida snowbirds also reported in. Mark C. wrote us, “The last several years we spent our Januarys and Februarys in Key West, Fort Myers Beach and Naples, Florida. Not this coming winter. I think Key West might still be OK, but I don’t think our Fort Myers beach reservation will be available for some time, if ever.” We wrote back to ask what park in Fort Myers Mark frequented. He told us, “Red Coconut.”
It was one of those heart-dropping moments when we received Mark’s response. Red Coconut had been a park we’d just researched. In fact, a Go Fund Me page had been set up on behalf of the families employed by the park. The entire park was virtually erased by Ian.
“The worst I have ever experienced”
To be sure, there were many others among our readers who were touched, one way or another, by Hurricane Ian. Michelle A. has only seen pictures of the damage to her RV lot on Chokoloskee, an island near Everglades City. No wind damage to speak of, but the storm surge left a water line on her fifth wheel, “almost a foot above the water heater cover.” Pauline K. said her home’s damage was slight, but observed, “This was the worst I have ever experienced.”
Others commented on the never-can-tell nature of weather in these “interesting days.” Jillie harkened back 18 years, when they visited Florida during Hurricane Jeanine. “Our travel agent gave us the all clear that Jeanine was out to sea.” She was, but then looped back, “and nailed us in Orlando.” With Ian, “Sunday night we were told to secure everything. Monday night? Told to evacuate from the campground at Fort Wilderness in Disney.”
She added, “After all this? I am done with Florida. But then again I was in Maine with a hurricane. Can’t win.” Another reader commented on a video, shot by an RVer. “He was going to get out of Fort Meyers and head north. His map showed him headed to a spot on the South Carolina coast. I hope he made it, as that is where Ian ended up. He proved that there is no safe place to go.”
Disaster brings out the best
And as in every other disaster, bad times can bring out the good things in humankind. Mary Ann and her husband live just south of Tampa Bay. Her husband has health problems, so rolling across the state without a place to stay, nor hookups for equipment, wouldn’t work. An inland friend called and asked them to stay with them. What to do with the RV? Their local mechanic volunteered a spot to park the rig at his shop—on high ground.
On Monday before the landfall, George H. and his family decided it was time to make tracks. They climbed in their RV and left Fort Myers in the rearview mirror. Off they went to a Boondockers Welcome site in West Palm Beach. They “endured 20 tornado warnings and twice had to enter our host’s home to be safe.” He added, “They were wonderful hosts, sharing their home when the tornadoes were close, and baking bread for the couple of RV folks who were there.”
Finally, Kat A. wrote about their winter home in North Fort Myers—a place at the focal point of damage. They have a place at the Raintree RV Resort. After Ian left Florida, Kat’s husband went down to the resort to check things out. He’s been there ever since, helping other resort residents put things back together. “Over the past week the winter residents that are down there have done a lot of cleanup as well as putting tarps on over 50 units. Sides of units have also been tarped.” Has Kat worried about how her hubby has been doing? She reports that he’s been there since September 30, and has only had to fix his own dinner once—the locals are looking after the volunteers, seeing to it they don’t go without a decent meal.
Recurring theme of hope
Hurricane Ian left an indelible mark on Southeast Florida. For some, it will take years to recover. Through the devastation, we saw the recurring theme: We’ll make it, we have our lives. If the word from state RV park promoters proves up, this winter should see places for Florida snowbirds to stay. If you’ve made plans to winter in Florida this season, start making your calls now, and you’ll likely find room at the inn.