NAPLES, Fla. – All Darcy Bishop can think of while she tries to salvage decades of waterlogged memories destroyed after Hurricane Ian sent nearly 7 feet of storm surge through her front door is Santa Claus.
"They’re already asking if Santa is going to fix their room," she cries. "That’s their mentality. Is Santa going to fix it?"
Russell Rochow, 66, is bound to his wheelchair. His three-year-younger brother, Todd Rochow, uses a walker. Darcy said they were both born with cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s and have the mental development of a young child. Christmas to them is sitting in the living room together inside their Naples, Florida, home – a sanctuary for the past 41 years.
Their younger sister is now left alone to pick up the pieces. And fixing everything will be the most challenging thing Darcy will attempt to overcome.
"And I can’t promise that to them," she said. "Are we going to have Christmas again here? I can’t promise them that."
But for Darcy, her family is her life – that’s all she has ever had.
Evacuating from Ian was not an option for Darcy. Her parents had traveled to Wisconsin over the summer, and she was home to care for her brothers as she always had. They were sent to return the week Hurricane Ian was expected to make landfall, but she told them to stay put for their safety.
She thought about going to her daughter’s home in interior Collier County. However, staying there would have been difficult to meet her brothers’ demanding needs, not to mention the tornadoes the night before Ian struck.
So as the powerful Category 4 hurricane began to churn its winds, Darcy decided it was best to bunker down and hope for the best.
Aside from several tornadoes and catastrophic winds, the extremely dangerous major hurricane brought life-threatening storm surges and widespread flooding as it pummeled Southwest Florida.
The call to mom
By 8 a.m. on the morning of landfall, Darcy said she lost power, which upset her brothers because Ian was beginning to disrupt their daily routine. By lunchtime, she felt something was not right.
Water began to show up on the floor of the home. At first, it was ankle-deep but quickly rose to her calf. Panicked, she placed Russell into his wheelchair and got Todd from his room. By now, knee-deep water was already inside her home.
"I couldn’t even get the front door open. It just wouldn’t go," Darcy said. "So, then I tried the garage, and you couldn’t open the car door. There was no way."
Fear set in as she rushed to get her 165-pound brother out of his wheelchair and onto higher ground upstairs. She had already gotten Todd up the stairs away from the water.
"I’m trying to pull and pull. I’m trying to get Russell to hang onto the stairs," she remembers.
Russell slipped down the stairs as Darcy forced him up while water rushed from the front door. Eventually, she managed to get him up a few stairs with the help of the rising water. Waves had already pushed his wheelchair out the door.
Exhausted and helpless, Darcy placed pillows around Russell as best as she could to keep his head up, but his body would remain in the water.
"I never could get him out," she cried. "God bless him. He just kept saying, ‘I’m tired. I’m tired, Darcy.’"
She tried grabbing an old belt and attaching it to him to hang on, but it snapped. At her wit’s end, with her phone dying, tears began to flow down Darcy’s face. Her tears tasted like the saltwater surrounding her. She felt the end was near.
"And I just called my mom and said, ‘I love you. I did the best I could to try to save the boys, and I’m sorry,’" she sobbed.
‘I would have drowned with my brothers’
Before her phone died, Darcy called her daughter and 911 for help but was told police would only be on their way once it was safe. She waded in the water with Russell for hours until it slowly began to recede. Help from family members would soon arrive after the worst of the storm passed.
Darcy told the crew of volunteers that she wasn’t leaving without her brothers, who needed to be lifted out. Canoes would now usher her brothers to dry ground. Darcy would take a raft with her dog up the road a few miles, where a truck was waiting to reunite her with her family.
"And that’s where my daughter met us. We got the biggest welcome ever. I was so glad to see her," she said.
Looking back, Darcy said if she could have only saved herself and not her brothers from the hurricane, she would have died with them.
"I would have drowned with my brothers," she wept. "My brothers are my world. I don’t look at them as being special needs. They’re just like me."
Limited on funds and housing options, Darcy is working to find a new home that can accommodate a wheelchair and purchase a car to get to medical appointments.
She also broke her hand after the storm, making caring for her brothers even more difficult. A near-compound fracture made the ultimate decision to place Russell in a group home, allowing her to focus on her house and saving what she could.
Financial generosity from strangers has also raised over $40,000 of her $60,000 goal in a GoFundMe established to keep her family together.
The weeks and months ahead for Darcy and her family will be tough. But thanks to the blessing of church group volunteers, work has begun in the restoration process to prepare for the holidays, hopefully.
So, Santa, if you are listening and not already busy fixing up that room … the helping hands of good Samaritans have already given you a head start.