‘I never felt alone’: Florida widow finds courage to rebuild after Hurricane Ian

Lorraine Andrews lost her husband in 2021 and then lost her home during Hurricane Ian in 2022. With the help of her family and Florida community, she has found the strength to rebuild her home and heal her heart.

BAREFOOT BEACH, Fla. – Sand, dirt and mud are smeared across white bathroom tiles and countertops. Furniture lay toppled and strewn across a living room floor, as a lone armchair looks on while perched upon a desktop.

Creeping up the walls are 5-foot-tall water stains, fingerprints of the now-vanished culprit behind the chaos.

This is what Lorraine Andrews will soon come home to.

Like many residents of the Sunshine State, Andrews lost much of her home to Hurricane Ian. While the storm has since dissipated, Andrews and her fellow Floridians must now sift through the wreckage it left behind.

For the love of Florida

"I had traveled to many places around Florida on business, but I really liked southwest Florida," said Andrews.

A New Jersey native, Andrews first moved to Florida’s east coast in Jacksonville. Then in 2000, she made her way to the Southwest Florida community of Barefoot Beach, between Fort Myers and Naples. That has been her home for more than 20 years.

"It reminded me of the Keys because it's very casual," she said. "It has beautiful sunsets, and the people are terrific."

With those sunsets and community came storms.

Andrews and her husband weathered a number of storms together on Barefoot Beach. One hurricane knocked loose a small part of their roof, and another brought down their pool cage.

This year, however, Andrews took a different approach to the storms. She left her home in July to stay with her daughter in California.

"My husband died a year and a half ago, and I was not about to stay there for hurricane season alone," she said.

The wrath of Hurricane Ian

On Sept. 28, Ian made landfall in the Fort Myers area as a Category 4 hurricane. Its 150-mph winds pushed water from the Gulf of Mexico onto shore, creating storm surge that rose several feet high.

One of Andrews’s neighbors on Barefoot Beach captured photos and videos of the rising water from his house and sent them to her, as she watched the storm unfold from her daughter's home.

"It was really flowing swiftly like a river," Andrews said. "So, you knew the water was very deep, and the wind was just blowing waves across the land."

"I knew I was in trouble," she added.

The images showed water reaching the top of her neighbor’s garage. The surge lifted vehicles, such as the maroon Dodge Ram that belonged to Andrews’s late husband, and pushed them around like toys.

Joining the vehicles were boats, which were seen floating down the streets of Barefoot Beach.

"I was afraid a boat might be crashing into my second floor," said Andrews.

As Ian passed and the floodwaters began to recede, the full extent of damages to the Barefoot Beach community and Andrews’s home were revealed.

Damages left behind

While Andrews was safely away from the devastation, one of her neighbors arranged for services to assess and repair damages to her home. Andrews also has had the assistance of a husband-and-wife team to help take care of the house.

What they found was a ground floor eviscerated.

The electricity was gone. Doors had swollen from the 5-foot-high floodwaters, making them difficult to open. Furniture, from upholstered armchairs to a wooden bar large enough to fit six people, was floated and became soaked in floodwater.

According to Andrews, everything on her ground floor had to be removed.

"It was a total disaster," she said.

The devastation, however, extended well beyond home goods. It also involved memories.

Watercolor paintings Andrews made during her travels were ruined – still lifes of water lilies, bridges over Paris, scenes in Acapulco and more, destroyed by the same medium that brought them to life.

The loss didn’t stop there.

"The things that I'm most upset about are all the photos of family that we had, like a Wall of Fame," Andrews said. This Wall of Fame was a collection of about 60 framed photos – enough to cover an entire wall.

"All those pictures were ruined," she said. "To me, that's the biggest loss."

Courage among the wreckage

Like many Floridians whose homes were devastated by Ian, Andrews now has to balance the strength needed to rebuild her home and the pain she feels from having lost so much.

What gives her hope is the community that made her fall in love with Southwest Florida over two decades ago.

"A lot of them have reached out for me because they know my situation, and they're so giving that way," Andrews said. "It gave me a lot of courage."

"I never felt alone," she added.

Her community also helped her recover some of her most precious items. One of which was a great-grandfather's pocket watch that was kept in her husband's desk, located on the flooded ground floor. 

Andrews also felt like she got a sign from her husband – the very person she shared countless memories with on Barefoot Beach – and it came in the form of hot-air balloons that float past her daughter’s California home. 

Usually, only three hot air balloons fly nearby, but last Friday brought something different.

"There were nine of them -- came by, and it landed right in view of the front window of this house," Andrews said.

"And I go, 'You know what? It's my husband letting me know that everything's going to work out OK.'"