As Hurricane Ian raced toward her home in Fort Myers, Florida, Sandy Middleton sat 1,500 miles away in Wisconsin and convinced herself it would be okay.
On Thursday morning, she even thought it might be: The first photos of the home’s exterior, taken by a neighbor, showed a modest amount of damage.
A curled roof. A collapsed carport.
“My mom, she’s so strong,” Jackie Middleton of Waunakee said Friday afternoon. “She said, ‘It’s okay.’ It is the exterior. We will be able to rebuild that.’”
However, hope waned later on Thursday when the neighbor was able to enter the home, where a damaged roof let the rain pour in unimpeded.
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“It’s just devastating,” Sandy Middleton said Friday from the Castle Rock Lake campground where she stays every summer. “I don’t even know what to do when I get there. I can’t live in my house.”
As Ian blew across Florida as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, Madison-area residents who own property in the Sunshine State could do little more than watch, wait and hope.
It’s unclear exactly how many Wisconsinites own homes in Florida: The US Census Bureau tracks second-home ownership, but not to geographic specificity.
But long, cold winters tempt northerners to travel south each year, and the Sunshine State is one of the most popular destinations.
As of 2018, between 20% and 30% of homes in the Fort Meyers region are their owners’ second homes, according to a National Association of Home Builders analysis of the 5-Year American Community Survey.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has a home in Fort Myers. Former UW-Madison football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez is spending the winter in Naples.
Tasha O’Malley lives in Sun Prairie with her husband, Brendan. Earlier this year, the couple also bought a house in St. Petersburg, Florida, they rent out as Airbnb.
“We thought about driving down to go up the windows,” she said.
But a neighbor from Florida convinced the O’Malleys to stay put.
“My husband could be stuck, there are bridges that could have closed and kept him off the mainland,” Tasha O’Malley said.
Their home in St. Petersburg weathered the storm with only some yard debris and a power outage passed a few hours after the hurricane.
Sherry St. Mari divides her time between Verona and Naples, selling real estate in both states.
St. Mari was in Naples this week when she heard about the impending hurricane. She texted her children in Wisconsin to ask if they wanted her to go north, but before they could even reply, she was packed and on her way.
“I feel like a traitor because I left my neighbors there. That’s what happens when you (live) in multiple places,” said St. Marie. “But I had to come after my children. I had to respect that there is a mandatory evacuation.”
Sandy Middleton plans to return to Florida in three weeks after the water at her Castle Rock campground is shut off on Oct. 15.
So far she has not been able to reach her insurance company and her policy documents are in Florida.
She doesn’t know where to live. She doesn’t know how to clean up her property. She doesn’t know what can be saved.
“It’s just kind of overwhelming and everyone’s asking a lot of questions and I want to spend 24 hours not talking about it,” she said.
But, she said, reality will not wait.
Photos: The $72 million expansion of Octopi in Waunakee