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Seniors in Florida are struggling after Hurricane Ian. Some won’t rebuild their shattered homes

<i>CNN</i><br/>Lisa Neeham is living in an RV and has plans to rebuild her home.
Lisa Neeham is living in an RV and has plans to rebuild her home.

By Gabe Cohen and Aaron Cooper, CNN

More than three weeks after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, Johnnie Glisson is still sleeping in his pickup truck.

The storm flooded the 74-year-old’s house in Matlacha, just outside Fort Myers. Little survived beyond a damp couch he propped up on cinderblocks. He now uses it to rest his back after long days of cleaning up the wreckage he once called home.

“It helps me feel like this is still a home, and it’s my home,” Glisson said about the couch. “So probably more of a symbol than anything that says I’m here and it’s coming back.”

Glisson bought the home for retirement. He calls it a “slice of heaven.” He says there’s no chance he’s leaving. But he doesn’t know how he’ll afford to rebuild. He didn’t have insurance.

“We have FEMA,” he said. “So, I’m hoping to get some help there.”

A trail of destruction lines so many streets in southwest Florida. The remnants of wrecked homes are piled in front of houses, the debris waiting to be hauled away. Tattered heirlooms are scattered in the wreckage, destroyed when the storm flooded thousands of homes.

Relief groups, including the Red Cross, say seniors were hit particularly hard in the storm. Volunteers with disaster response organizations like the Cajun Navy Ground Force are still going door to door, trying to help them with the recovery.

“Florida is where people come to retire,” Rob Gaudet, Cajun Navy’s founder, said. “There’s a large elderly population that really are facing their darkest hours … They really need a lot of help, a lot of assistance, getting back on their feet.”

Lisa Needham, 62, is planning to rebuild her home in Arcadia. The house is already gutted down to the studs. Most of her belongings are piled up with the debris on the curb.

“We are homeless,” Needham said. “It’s all very hard. I worked a long time to have this place on the water and now it’s all gone.”

Rebuilding will take months

Needham and her boyfriend are living in their driveway, staying in an RV lent to them by a friend. They’re planning to rebuild, and expect it could cost as much as $80,000 and take months, at least.

“To put out that kind of money would be very tough on me right now,” Needham said.

She retired last year. Now she says she may have to go back to work.

“I don’t want to,” she said. “It would be very hard for me to go back to work. Very hard.”

The storm displaced thousands of Floridians. Many did not have flood insurance. Rebuilding isn’t an option for everyone.

Toby Freeman, 77, is now in Buffalo, New York, where his daughter Christa lives. He says 7 feet of water wrecked his home in Fort Myers Beach.

“I’m going to be stuck here for a while, if not forever,” Freeman said.

His wife, Karen, is still recovering in a rehabilitation center in Florida. The couple rode out the storm at home, floating on a bed as flood water poured into the house.

“The only thing I got out of that house was the clothing on my back and I had to throw it away,” he said.

Retirement funds tied up in house

Freeman says they have little savings and no insurance, so they’re moving to Buffalo. His daughter Christa is dipping into her retirement savings to help them find a home.

“You have to take care of family,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Alice and Richard Johnson, who live in the same senior community as the Freemans, are moving into their recreational vehicle full-time.

They say they didn’t have flood insurance, and a lot of their retirement funds are tied up in their house.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Alice Johnson said. “I just don’t want to invest what little money we’d have left, just keeping a house.”

Instead, they plan to sell the wrecked home when they can, and use whatever assistance they may receive to buy a small property for the RV.

Alice turns 85 next week, and the couple wants to focus on their family and enjoying life together.

“How many good years do I have left to live?” Alice Johnson said. “I don’t want to spend the next two years rebuilding a house, dealing with contractors, doing work ourselves, even picking out furniture. For what? For who? For me?”

“I think that we would rather sell it and live for the next couple of years.”

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