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Precious Heirlooms Preserved After Hurricane Ian

This fall, Hurricane Ian swept through Southwest Florida. Despite the uncertainty, some found glimmers of hope through the wreckage—precious heirlooms, symbolizing priceless memories, survived.

BY December 1, 2022
Keepsakes and heirlooms recovered from Hurricane Ian
(Photography by Anna Nguyen)

From Betty, With Love

The Van Arsdale family has a long legacy in Naples, stretching back five generations. One of the youngest descendants, Nina, who moved back to town a few years ago, often remembers her grandmother Betty, a vibrant artist, who passed away in 2015. In the 1960s, Betty started illustrating Christmas cards for the family. Drawn mostly in black or red ink, the cards might feature Betty’s pet parrot, Leonard, sitting in a palm tree—a fun, Floridian spin on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” partridge in a pear tree gift. Or, you might find a sketch of the tree-framed home the family used to own on Rum Row. Nina’s favorite card, dating back to the 1980s, shows Betty’s 10 grandchildren at the time. Nina didn’t know about the card until she went to help her father in his Royal Harbor home after the storm and found it in a plastic bin on the flooded first floor. The space was filled with photos, brochures and schedules from Provincetown-Boston Airlines—the airline that serviced Naples for decades and was founded by Nina’s grandfather, John. Looking closely at the card, Nina found her name hidden in a dress, a detail inspired by artist Al Hirschfeld, who famously hid the name of his daughter, Nina, in many of his illustrations. “It was the first time I had a joyous moment after the storm,” she says.

She separated the cards one by one and laid them out to dry. Among the wreckage, Nina found comfort in the preserved holiday relics. “It reminded me how witty and young-spirited she was in the things she created,” Nina says. The finding also reminded her to pay closer attention to all those irreplaceable family mementos. The cards and other keepsakes now reside in Nina’s office—all except for the Hirschfield-inspired card, which she framed. “All these years later, it brought up those emotions and reminded me how amazing she was. Those are the little moments we need to hold on to and remember,” she says.

(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

 

Close to the Heart

Brenda Andersen promised to buy a house for herself after her late-life divorce. Two years ago, she bought a home in Old Bridge Village, an adult community in North Fort Myers, and recruited a friend to help with the repairs on the fixer-upper. When the storm came this fall, two years of work washed away. 

Brenda came home to find three precious items floating in 18 inches of water. There in the muck, she saw a set of lockets she made when she was younger with photos of her grandmother; her first stepfather, the man who raised her and who she considered a hero; and her mother’s last husband. Each one stood opposite a photo of her mom. “I hesitated even to open the lockets,” Brenda says, knowing how water damage can ruin old photographs.

Though in one locket, the portrait of her grandmother is marred, with her face barely recognizable, and her mom’s face fading, the rest are in good condition. She’s thankful to have a reminder of her family she can keep close to her heart. “Everybody has memories, but you don’t really stop to think how important they are until you almost lose the thing that triggers those memories,” she says.

(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

 

The Book of Life

At 53, dermatologist Scott Crater is the youngest of seven children. As children, he and his siblings were given their mother’s 1909 edition of The Wizard of Oz. Their mother, who passed away at 92 in 2015, received the book when she was a kid. Over the years, the hardcover was always on the family bookshelf, a constant presence in their lives. By the time Scott was old enough to read it, scribble marks and stains from his siblings covered the pages. “I think all of our hands have touched that book at one point or another,” he says. He inherited the book when he graduated college and has taken pride in preserving it. 

The day before the storm hit, Scott rushed to evacuate the Sanibel home where he and his wife raised their three children. They only had time to gather essentials like insurance documents. A week later, displaced, Scott took a boat back to the island to see what remained. His home—an upside-down concept, with the living area on the upper floor and storage on the lower level—was submerged, with many memories lying under 8 feet of water. Bins filled with newspapers, playbills of his children’s community theater days and wedding albums were drenched. The Wizard of Oz book was covered in mud and had been sitting in water for days when he found it; he thought it was unsalvageable.

But as the pages dried, he noticed though the spine was ripped and the cover gone, the pages held together, and the pictures and words were intact. “I don’t have too many tangible items from my parents,” Scott says, adding that as the youngest in a big family, there wasn’t much left for him to inherit. Scott’s eager to pass the book down to his children. “My kids never got to know their grandmother too well,” he says. “This book gives them a connection to her.”

(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

 

Back on Track

Tom and Ellie Kolar lived on the water in Fort Myers Beach for 47 years. Having spent most of their lives in Southwest Florida, the couple had gone through many storms and were in no rush to leave their home. Around 3:30 a.m. the night before the hurricane hit, their daughter Sandy Stilwell Youngquist received a call—the wind was picking up, there was a downpour. She knew they needed to get out and rushed over in the middle of the night to evacuate her 92-year-old father and 88-year-old mother.

When they returned three days later, the Kolars found all that stood in the home, where they’d raised their children and recently celebrated their 70th anniversary, was one wall with framed portraits of the couple’s three children. This was the second time they’d lost a home to a major storm; the first was in Cape Coral during Hurricane Donna in 1960.

While Tom was digging through the rubble in search of some of Ellie’s jewelry, he spotted something red amidst the black and brown muck and metal beams: a vintage toy train, about a foot long, with American Flyer Lines written on the side and flecks of gold shining through between the bits of rust. The train had been a gift to his older brother, Frank, from their grandfather when the family lived in Chicago in the 1930s. Frank died some years later in a car accident when Tom was 14. “He was a real close friend of mine when we were growing up,” Tom says. “Wherever he went, he took me along with him. I was kind of a pain in the butt, and I was a drag-along. But he was a good brother.”

Tom brought the train along when he moved to Florida with his wife and kids in 1959. It was one of his last few physical reminders of his big brother. After Hurricane Donna, the family stored the locomotive in a box, but decades later, when Hurricane Irma hit their Fort Myers Beach home, the train went missing, presumably washed away. For years, Tom thought the locomotive was lost until he saw the engine peeking out of the rubble after Ian. He dug deeper and found one of the dining cars, too. “Here it was after all these years,” he says. This time around, Tom won’t store the train; he wants to be able to look at it every day and plans to display it on a bookshelf in his new condo—a perfect resting place. 

(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

 

International Trophies

A former Olympian, Fort Myers-based Christiana Hedlund has moved around a lot. She and her family were pushed out of Germany after World War II, and she had to leave most of her possessions behind—including the bronze Olympic medal she won in the all-around gymnastics category. Over the years, the 86-year-old has lived across Europe and the United States. She’s gathered keepsakes and jewelry from the places and people who have meant the most to her.

Christiana has a handmade silver necklace from Italy she hopes to pass along to her granddaughters; an 18-karat gold bracelet, ring and band gifted by her mother for Christiana’s confirmation in 1950; and a gold, heart pendant necklace her best friend gave her 10 years ago before passing away from leukemia. This piece, she says, is her favorite. “She was my best friend, my everything, my comfort,” Christiana says. “Sometimes you tell a girlfriend more than your own husband.” 

As the hurricane neared, Christiana placed her prized possessions in a locked box within the trunk of her car for safety—it contained her jewelry and her corgi’s first-place medals from several dog shows in Germany. She couldn’t imagine losing what little remained of her past life. Christiana rode out the storm for 10 hours in the community center with 42 neighbors, six dogs, five cats and two birds, who sat without power while the worst of the hurricane hit.

When they emerged, she found the flood had messed with the car’s electronics and popped the trunk—her possessions were swept away; her home was destroyed. “My car was totally wet to the dashboard,” she recalls. “And then I came back, I stepped in the house and ‘squish, squish,’ water on the rug.”   

A week after the storm, her neighbor Preston Becker was cutting down trees at the community’s clubhouse and noticed a soaked train case below him. He had a hunch it belonged to Christiana and walked the waterlogged package over as she headed out the door. When she saw him, Christiana broke down in tears. “I look at it as a divine intervention, like a miracle,” she says. “I am blessed—I mean, that happens once in a million years.”   

(Photo by Anna Nguyen)