Earlier this year I moved from New York to Venice, Florida to be with my mother after my father passed away. My parents chose Venice for its beauty and accessibility when they retired 10 years ago. The neighborhood is classic Gulf Coast style: a small gated community of stucco cookie-cutter homes filled with elderly couples who have made the same retirement choices as my mom and dad.

My politics are well known to my new neighbors. They put up Trump flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” bumper stickers while I grow organic beets under palm trees and listen to NPR all day. At normal times, they smile at me as I charge my electronics with elaborate solar panels, and I giggle to myself when I hear NASCAR blaring from their TVs.

We treat each other cordially. We stop and chat about the weather as our dogs meet in the empty streets. We are polite. And every now and then one of them yells at me about “Sleepy Joe” Biden or “Croaky” Hillary. I laugh with them. I’d rather be happy and have peace with my neighbors than worry about being “right”.

But now everything has changed.

When Hurricane Ian made a last-minute swing toward Venice last Wednesday, we were warned that our area was close to the mandatory evacuation zone. Despite this piece of information and the usually variable nature of hurricane tracks, almost all residents in our unit have decided to stay in their homes.

A day before landing, the usually dormant neighborhood suddenly came alive. Snowbirds (retirees who split their time between northern states in the summer and Florida in the winter), but before they could get south, called to ask their Florida neighbors to help put up storm shutters, sandbag doors, cut screens to reduce damage – and we did. People scrambling for last-minute food, gas or water checked with others to see if they needed supplies and got enough for those who didn’t. Herculean efforts to prepare for hurricanes were divided and defeated. In the piece, we learned more about each other, laughed, and expressed our fears about the storm ahead.

Then Jan arrived. We are luckier in Venice than our neighbors to the south in Fort Myers, but not by much. During the hurricane, my mother and I sat between two mattresses in an interior closet with our supplies and my cat Velvis. We held each other as we waited. We waited for the roof to collapse, we waited for the water to start pouring under the door, we waited for it to end.

The electricity went out almost as soon as the wind started whipping waves onto our street. The incessant, deafening roar of the thunderstorm was interspersed with even stronger, even more terrifying sounds – like when parts of the roof fly off or hundred-year-old trees are sucked out of the ground and hit the side of the house. Sixteen horrible hours in the eye of the hurricane is not something I want to repeat.

As bad as the actual storm was, I knew the real difficulty would be the days and weeks ahead. That’s when you’ll have to evaluate, clean, and repair, usually under dire circumstances. My mother and I walked out of that closet into an unrecognizable world of destruction.

The roof covers the ground

(Diane Neal)

We are still without power and there is no forecast when it will be restored. Based on the downed power lines littering the streets and the massive trees hanging from the wires that didn’t snap, I can’t imagine the power coming back anytime soon.

The streets, now partially passable, were completely impassable for several days. Many were heavily flooded, with fish swimming in them, and residents were issued “alligator warnings” to stay out of the water for fear that those who survived the storm would become dinner for the lizards.

We didn’t have cell service until last Saturday, so no one had any news other than what we heard from others. The others, in turn, heard it from someone else who dared to venture into the unknown. All we had was literally “word on the street”. Cell service has been restored, but there is not enough connection to check the internet or open an app. However, you can send text messages and sometimes make phone calls. The landline is not working.

I asked a friend in New York to open the government sites and give me a status report that I could share with the neighborhood. As of this weekend, we were still “in the red.” That means: stay off the roads, no emergency services, no updates, nothing. I didn’t ask anyone to check today, but I’d be surprised if that changed.

We had no water, except for an intermittent trickle, for several days. Today, I finally have enough pressure to flush the toilet without lugging buckets of water into the pitch-black bathroom, and maybe I can even wash my smelly hair. We are under a “boil water” notice, but we don’t have the ability to boil it, so I have to keep the water out of my eyes and mouth or I risk getting sick. And of course, if there is no way to heat the water, it will be a cold shower if I take it, but in the heat without air conditioners, it will not be unwelcome.

The subdivision, though littered with fallen trees, debris and parts of houses, is full of people doing their best. Everyone checks on each other, helps with what they can, lends what they can share. Our neighbor on one side, a nimble man in his 70s, climbed up on our steep and slippery roof with me and patched more holes in 30 minutes than I did in two hours. It was incredible. Our extra tarps are covering another neighbor’s roof that caved in during the storm. Rakes, shovels and saws pass through the houses. A communal clothesline stretches across the yards so we can all dry the various things we used to flood our homes.

Destroyed power lines

(Diane Neal)

But now, so long after the storm with no resources, things could get dire. Those with gas generators are running out of fuel. And there isn’t one available for miles in any direction. Even those who found a gas station that was still open and had fuel waited in line for up to eight hours to get what they could. People who have gas generators here usually use them to run medical equipment important to their health or to cool vital medicines. Most of my MAGA neighbors have them. But now they are running out of ways to keep them.

Food rots in warm freezers and refrigerators, and stagnant water breeds swarms of mosquitoes everywhere.

Although the resources are dwindling, there is no care and concern for each other. I imagined that as the situation worsened, people would become more protective, more selfish. But I was wrong. One couple’s son drove back roads for five hours yesterday (because I-75 was closed) to get a generator and extra gas. We helped him unload his big truck covered in Trump/Pence stickers, trying not to spill a drop of the precious liquid. The pair immediately passed two of the three gas canisters to others who had run out. Each of these neighbors used a few, then passed the familiar red canisters on to the next household in need, and so on until they were empty.

This son also brought ice. Loads of it. Without thinking or asking, the couple gave us half. Having a cool drink, saving food and more drinking water is like manna from heaven in such a heat. When this generosity could not be surpassed, the couple even asked their son to pick up an extra lunch for us. Strombalis. After almost a week of eating “contingency” food, nothing has ever tasted so good.

And this is the smallest help, aid and exchange that comes out of this terrible situation. Smiles, conversations and concerns continue in our small, flattened part of the world.

There is no doubt that there are many difficult days ahead, especially as we struggle without basic necessities. But we were lucky – it could have been worse, and my heart aches for those who lost much more than their property. There are certainly politicians who will have to be held accountable for their decisions that have contributed to the chaos wrought by Mother Nature, and I’m sure all of us here on these blocks will disagree on who those responsible parties are. But that’s for another day.

I am used to judging a man by his politics. I’m ashamed of what I did. This disaster reminded me that people should be measured by their actions, not who they vote for. And I hope my neighbors will show me the same courtesy; that they would now see me not as a “limousine liberal” who moved in with her mom, but as a true friend. Like all true friends, we will work to get through this together.