Hurricane Irma

Our Post-Irma Trek to Gateway

Our senior writer visits the flooded community with help from a friend.

BY September 13, 2017


"Do you have a boat or a kayak? Only way in.”

That’s the Facebook message I got from my friend, Francesca Donlan, when she heard I wanted to go do some reporting in Gateway, the sprawling community east of JetBlue Park that got walloped—bad—when Irma swung right and struck the part of town that hadn’t been warned about flooding. I, like many others in Evacuation Zone A, had considered fleeing to there, figuring landlocked Gateway had to be the safest spot in the county. (My girls and I hunkered down at my brother’s place, in Zone C, instead. A good decision, apparently.)

Francesca's ride, Ray and his son

Back to my friend. Francesca lives in Gateway’s northeast side, in between the Cypress Cay and Bristol Parc neighborhoods, now fondly dubbed “Gateway Island.”

This neighborhood’s story is one that’s playing out in places throughout Southwest Florida—in Lehigh Acres and Marco Island and Chokoloskee and rural communities to the east. Responses are varying in each of those places—nonprofits and faith groups are swarming to some neighborhoods; generational fishing families, well-accustomed to nature’s whims, are taking charge in Collier’s southernmost parts. The Gateway Islanders are getting by on humor.

“Here’s where I cut a hole to get in and out,” Francesca says, climbing out of the Honda she’s parked on the side of a main road and leading the way through an opening in the hedges.

Today is the first day you could hopscotch along patches of lawn and avoid the need to boat or to wade. This is good because the water is soup-pot warm, stinky, and when my foot hits it, I can’t help but worry my generator-inflicted cut is going to get infected.

An interesting sight

We tromp through yards to the other side of the street to visit her neighbor (and another friend and former colleague of mine), Ray Sarracino. Between the two of them, I get a good rundown of the last few days.

• The road out front: "The River"
• Topic of recent conversation: The strength of the current
• Favorite post-storm pastime: Canoeing down The River
• Best neighborhood sign: No Wake Zone
• Favorite communication device: Walkie-Talkies
• Craziest moment: When the deranged shelter cat leapt out a window
• Best background music: The 15-year-old twins playing the tune that accompanied the sinking of the Titanic (They told the neighbors they’d switch to Jaws if the media showed up.)
• Biggest screech: That of Francesca’s teenaged daughter and her two friends when they opened the front door for the first time and saw water lapping the garage
• Most interesting non-emergency need: Ensuring that Abigail, the abused pitbull-turned-internet sensation (Bonnets for Abigail), and her owners could get off the Island and to the airport where they’re scheduled to fly to Beverly Hills to participate in the American Humane Hero Dog Awards gala


Happy anniversary to Kim and Brian Dunham…

The New York Times at one point published an online map of Irma, showing its red line running straight through Gateway. Francesca plans to print out copies for her neighbors, as a souvenir.

The problem for Gateway appears to have been sheet flow running from an adjacent swath of undeveloped land, says Ray, who’s been looking into the matter. Had an appropriate berm been established, the neighborhood might not have flooded. There’s a good investigative topic for another day. Portions of Lehigh Acres, likewise accessible only by canoe, will want to know the same.

“This is not something we thought we would ever see,” Francesca says. “We were the epicenter.”

Humor aside, on the trek back, Francesca grows a little pensive.

“I’ve never felt this kind of isolation,” she says. What of all the Southwest Florida communities, neighborhoods segregated by poverty, that are routinely forgotten, ignored, invisible? she wonders.

“It just makes you think,” she says.

Indeed it does.


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