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Hurricane Ian, up close and personal
Richard Stephens with his sister, Lillian Durrence, and her husband, Joe Durrence.
Richard Stephens with his sister, Lillian Durrence, and her husband, Joe Durrence.

Richard Stephens, a 72-year-old south Georgia native with close ties to Reidsville, and his wife Kathy have lived in Bonita Springs, Florida since 1990, and he has lived in his current home since 1994.  He looks like a man who lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida and enjoyed the fishing, beaches, sunshine, and the laid back lifestyle that area is famous for. He has lived through five hurricanes including Charlie, (Cat 4 August 2004) and Irma (Cat 3, August 2017), and he thought he’d seen about the worst of the worst of hurricanes.  Irma had a nine-foot storm surge that brought the Imperial River water up to about 45 feet from his back door. His home had wind resistant windows, and storm surges of 9 to 12 feet were predicted.  Based on the 9‘ surge of Irma, he figured the surge of Ian wouldn’t be high enough to come into his house, so as Ian approached he and Kathy and their son Jamie, who lives next door, decided to stay.

“But,” he said, “This was almost a Category 5 storm, and the leading edge drained the river and the trailing edge blew it right back in right at high tide.  It was like a tsunami.”

As the water continued to rise, Jamie decided leave his small house to come to their home since his dog doesn’t like water, and it was getting close.  The water began to come inside their house around 7:30 p.m., and his neighbor, Mike Whaley, who lives on a higher elevated end of the cul-de-sac called and invited them over.

He declined and told him he thought they’d be okay. But it continued to rise in a hurry, and when they saw a flower planter float by the back window, they knew it was bad.  There was a knock at the door and it was Mike Whaley who had life preservers, and when they crawled out the back window the water was over four feet deep (later it would measure 50 inches deep inside the house).  Richard has had four back surgeries and four shoulder surgeries, and he says that he wouldn’t have made it without the life preservers. They got to Mike’s home at about 8:30 to 9 p.m. and Richard believes the water began to recede not too long afterwards.

Based on the recorded Irma surge, he believes the Ian surge was 18 and perhaps 20 feet. 

They got to Mike Whaley’s home and had to go upstairs as the lower story of the house was flooded.  Cabinets and walls were ruined, and Kathy called on Tuesday and said Mike was ripping out just about everything on the lower floor.

A home on the lower end of the cul-de-sac was completely immersed, and one two story home had water damage on the second floor. The water continued to recede in the early morning hours, and by the next morning most of the water was gone. The aftermath was astounding. He had a metal building over is boat, and water pushed the boat up so high it dented the metal roof. Vehicles in sand and mud were everywhere.  He lost two  vehicles, a motor home, and a brand new Chevy Equinox that had been modified to be towed behind the motor home. 

New construction on the river requires that houses be 13.25 feet above the normal high tide level. In plain language, new houses must be built on stilts. He thinks in some cases those houses would have suffered significant damage.

He had installed an automatic Generac generator in case of power outage.  Unfortunately it ended up under several feet of water. It will turn over so it didn’t lock up, but it will require specific maintenance before it can be determined if it was damaged.

One thing that was heartbreaking was the fact that he and Kathy had fifteen albums of photographs of their travels around the United States and the world, and they put them in a bathtub for protection.  When the high waters came, the commodes, sinks and bathtubs began to back up with sewage, and those albums, and hundreds of photos that weren’t in albums, were ruined.

He has 50 inches of drywall to be replaced, and since he feels sure drywall costs will explode and contractors who can do drywall will be overwhelmed with work, he is planning to stucco his inside walls and waterproof the lower areas.  He feels that will be cheaper and he can get it done quicker.

Prices are going up for everything. A couple of days ago a flat of eggs was $12.90.  

“The same thing will happen with building materials,” he said. “My brother-in-law, Joe Durrence of Reidsville and his son, Ashley, and his son, Colby, brought a trailer full of furniture, beds, etc. They drove down on Saturday night and unloaded and went on back Sunday afternoon.  I saw them and lost it.  I’m up here now to pick up a vehicle that Ashley is providing for us. I have always been a giver but a little too proud to be a receiver. It is wonderful to have family like that.

“I was scheduled to have another back surgery to fuse vertebrae five through eleven on the 28th of September.  I don’t know when the doctors can do that now, but my wife, my son, and my friends and I survived, and that is what is important.

“The economy has really taken a hit.  People who have winter homes and come down for several months in the winter may not have anything to come to.  Some of the big beautiful homes at places at Cape Corral, Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, Pine Island, and St James City look like they have been vaporized. The sport fishing industry in the Gulf will be on hold for a while in our area.  Recovering won’t be a sprint, it will be a marathon,” he said.

“I really believe this will turn out to be the most destructive storm in the history of Florida,” he said.  “I grumble at what happened to us, and then I see what happened to people a little north of us and I feel guilty. In so many places, even a long way inland, homes are just completely destroyed.  It looks like a bomb went off. I think the body count will continue to rise for a while. Lots of three to five story buildings just collapsed, and there is nothing but rubble.  It looks impossible not to have a lot more fatalities.  We had no communication for several days and it’s just getting re-established in some areas inland and north.  We’ll take it a day at the time.  Family, friends, faith; that is what’s important.”

Note:  Richard Stephens is an older brother to Lillian Stephens Durrence of Reidsville who has worked for the Tattnall Journal and now The Journal Sentinel for more years than she will admit. His parents were the late Claude “Steve” Stephens and Mary M. Stephens, his late brother, Charles Stephens was a Reidsville resident for many years before moving away. Joe, their son Ashley and his son Colby, made the drive down to the area as soon as it was safe to deliver need furniture and supplies.