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Sanibel resident got a glimpse of her duplex. ‘It just was paradise and it’s Paradise Lost’

Imagine being cut off from your home, your neighbors, your world and your only glimpse of your neighborhood is a satellite image someone sent to you on social media.

That’s how Sanibel resident Sara McKinley found out what may have happened to her home after Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 storm at Cape Cayo, a small island north of Captiva, near McKinley’s retirement home in Sanibel.

May have happened because few in these battered communities can know for sure ... yet.

With winds of 155 miles per hour — nearly a Category 5 — Hurricane Ian blasted Southwest Florida, collapsing roads from the mainland of Southwest Florida into San Carlos Bay, thus removing most access on or off the islands.

On her Facebook post on Friday, McKinley, a pastor at The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church in Lakeland, shared some good news — if you count her use of exclamation points.

Some dear dear friends were able to send me an aerial photo of my home!!! It’s still there and with the roof on!!! 8-15’ of storm surge reported on the island so obviously expect damage but this is the most encouraging news I’ve received so far!!!

Retirement on hold

But in actuality, the exclamation marks capture only one range of her emotions. There is so much more. Her Sanibel duplex is to be, was to be, maybe could still be, McKinley’s retirement home.

“My retirement plan that literally flew out the window,” she sighed. She was last living at the Sanibel duplex through June. She also has a home in Lakeland.

McKinley, 67, has owned the 2,084-square-foot Sanibel property in a close-knit community on Juniona Street in an eight-unit condominium association since 1998. She says she has been gradually renovating her duplex over the years. Some of her neighbors have standalone homes. Others, like her, have duplexes. Some are snowbirds. Some live in Sanibel year round or part time.

Sara McKinley on Coquina Beach, just off of Nerita Street on Sanibel, which is right near her duplex on Juniona Street, in Southwest Florida in July 2022.
Sara McKinley on Coquina Beach, just off of Nerita Street on Sanibel, which is right near her duplex on Juniona Street, in Southwest Florida in July 2022.

“They’re just beautiful homes,” she said. “It just was paradise and it’s Paradise Lost. It’s hard to imagine how it’s going to recover,” McKinley said.

Lost income, and the mortgage is due

When she’s not using her Sanibel property, McKinley rents it out and had a contract to rent the duplex out through next June, she said. The rental income — she estimates at $30,000 — is what she uses to pay the mortgage. She pronounces that as now lost income.

“The mortgage was due today, along with the condo association fees. So I just wrote checks for about $4,000 for a house that is uninhabitable. And I actually have a contract out for a brand new kitchen that, now, they have no place to put it,” McKinley told the Miami Herald on Saturday afternoon, a day after seeing an image of her home’s outside walls from a blurry satellite screen shot.

Her combined insurance deductibles on flood and contents come to about $30,000, McKinley estimates.

“I just don’t have that kind of money. A lot of people think everybody on Sanibel is wealthy and I’m certainly blessed to have a home where I was hoping to retire. But in normal circumstances I was getting by on the skin of my teeth and only because it’s rented most of the year. But now, you’ve still got to make all those payments and with no income it’s a very frightening time,” she said.

“We did hear from a neighbor on Nerita Street, which is the street you walk down to get to the beach near my house, so it’s very close, a five-minute walk. And I don’t know how they found this out but they reported they had four feet of standing water still in their house. I don’t know what the original amount was, but the reports pretty much said an eight- to 16-foot surge across the whole island. So the mayor’s assumption last night was that every home will have standing water,” McKinley said.

That means all of her furniture — all of it newly purchased in July — will be destroyed, she imagines. The new loveseat. The new bed. Even the spotless microwave that was only just placed two weeks ago awaiting its surrounding renovated kitchen.

Satellite technology

“To think about it is so sad,” McKinley said. “The money I invested in the house was the money I inherited from my mother from her passing in 2016. And every bit of that investment has now gone out out the window. So that’s been very sad for me. But, yes, before I knew it was even standing I just assumed it to be wiped off the map like so many of the houses have been down there. So that was incredible relief just to be able to see it was physically standing.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geodetic Survey has been providing satellite images of Southwest Florida coastal areas after Hurricane Ian to document the storm’s place in history and, in part, so that residents like McKinley can at least get some notion of what awaits them once access resumes onto the islands.

Her friends, she said, saw aerial images from NOAA helicopters, did a freeze frame when they recognized her house, and sent her the image that she posted to Facebook.

The NOAA images can be accessed via ngs.noaa.gov and have afforded people like McKinley the opportunity to at least see some glimpses of their homes or beloved local landmarks like favorite restaurants or resorts.

NOAA’s satellite images gathered under the heading, Hurricane Ian (2022), include hard-hit places like Sanibel and Captiva, Pine Island, Marco Island, Venice, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Naples, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and barrier islands.

READ MORE: I can’t get to my home on Pine Island. But I can see the damage from Ian. Here’s how

“Listening to the mayor last night, she described it as uninhabitable and, you know, they’ve got to rebuild the sewer system, the water, the electric grid. AT&T was putting up a temporary cell tower. There’s a 24-hour curfew on the island and they’re not letting anybody on unless it’s emergency assistance,” McKinley said.

Helping others

Here’s how you can help those in Florida affected by Hurricane Ian’s devastation

So while she waits for an in-person visit to what awaits her at her Sanibel property, McKinley must attend to another calling.

McKinley’s local United Methodist Church headquartered in Lakeland is mobilizing recovery efforts and collecting donations and that’s where she’s off to Saturday afternoon.

“I’m very blessed that I have a home here in Lakeland. So my retirement home, that’s gone,” she said. “But for other people, they’re not so blessed. That’s their only home and now they’re homeless and trying to find long-term housing in that area is impossible. It’s going to cause a great migration.”

McKinley’s heart aches.

“My heart and prayers go out to all the people who’ve lost loved ones in the end,” McKinley said. “It’s the people that have been lost. Lives lost and people have been hurt and the people for whom that was their only home. Those are the folks I’m most concerned about. And we’ll do everything we can as a church to help those who are struggling. But that’s who my heartbreaks for.

“For me, it’s going to be a huge financial challenge and it’s going to delay my retirement,” McKinley said. “But that’s not the end of the world. But for some people, they’ve lost lives. They’ve lost loved ones. That’s much worse.”

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