Man dies from rare flesh-eating bacteria after traveling to help with Hurricane Ian cleanup

A Michigan man died after contracting a dangerous bacterial infection while helping a friend clean up after Hurricane Ian in Florida. His fiancée said he spent tireless efforts in helping others and had a vibrancy for life.

Kendall Smoes says her father had a big heart filled with love for many of his friends and family. So, when her dad, James Hewitt, found out a friend recently lost his father and needed help cleaning up his home that Hurricane Ian destroyed, he traveled 1,300 miles to go and help.

That help would come with a cost, though, as Hewitt died days later after contracting flesh-eating bacteria in Florida waters. 

Smoes said he left Grand Rapids, Michigan, and arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, on October 5.


"A friend of his needed help," Leah DeLano, Hewitt's fiancée, told FOX Television Stations. "This friend lost his father 10 days prior, and that father had property (house and boat) in Naples, Florida. This property suffered significant hurricane damage."

On October 8, Hewitt was helping his friend and others clean up from Ian when he fell into a canal and injured his leg. He was said not to have thought much of it, just cleaned the wound and continued to help.

"He cut up his leg somehow, and that is how the bacteria entered his body," DeLano said. 

That next day, he woke up in extreme pain and went to the hospital.

"Upon arriving at the hospital emergency department, they determined he had an infection in his blood known as vibrio vulnificus, that is caused by a saltwater bacteria," Smoes said. "Vibrio is a bacteria that has a very high mortality rate, especially in those that have weakened immune systems, like my Dad."


DeLano told FOX that her fiancée died on October 11. She said the hospital staff was able to keep him alive until Smoes and her brother Joshua could come to Florida to see him. 

"Jim spent tireless efforts in helping others and making friends," DeLano said. "He had a vibrancy for life that was unmatched and had a love for me and his family that was his number one priority."

Hewitt's family members set up a GoFundMe to help cover hospital bills and cremation services.

Flesh-eating bacteria cases up in Florida following Hurricane Ian

Doctors tell FOX Weather that cases of vibrio vulnificus, commonly known as a flesh-eating bacterium, have risen since Hurricane Ian hit the Florida coast in late September and often rise after catastrophic weather events.

"My colleagues and I have been watching very closely, looking at the spikes in bacteria," environmental engineer Tracy Fanara told FOX Weather Wednesday. "Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that we're seeing an uptick in, just like we saw after Hurricane Irma."

Dr. Peter Hotez from the National School of Tropical Medicine says that the bacteria live on the Gulf Coast.

"The abundance of this bacteria has been increasing over the last few years because of two factors," Hotez said. "One is warming climate, but also because of some lower pockets of salinity in the region because of sewage dumping to coastal waterways."


People wading in floodwaters with cuts and some consuming shellfish are contributors to people getting these flesh-eating bacteria, doctors warn

"It's really important to take care of it as soon as possible within the first 72 hours because, after that, your chances are not good," Fanara said.