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Sarasota advocates reflect on Hurricane Ian's health impact one year later

Woman stands in front of her office doorway.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Dr. Lisa Merritt works to reduce health disparities in the region as executive director of the Multicultural Health Institute. Hurricane Ian has exacerbated inequities, she said, where recovery is often limited to the wealthy.

Advocates say they've spent the last year working to help residents get their health back on track after Ian caused disruptions in care. They say the stress of storm recovery continues to cause mental wounds for some.

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ian this week may bring back painful memories for some Floridians, especially those hit hard by the storm who are still struggling.

For Sarasota resident Vicki Guy, talking about the immediate aftermath of Ian gives her goosebumps.

She remembers anxiously trying to reach friends and family who lived further south in communities like North Port and Matlacha and needed rescuing after the Category 4 storm flooded their homes. Her mother needed help with her own damaged house nearby.

“It was a lot of stress, a lot of trauma, you know, it felt like your whole world was shook up,” said Guy.

aerial shot of flooded neighborhood
Sarasota County Government
Rainfall from Hurricane Ian poured into waterways that serve as tributaries to the Myakka River, causing it to rise and flood many of North Port's neighborhoods and roadways.

“People were devastated"

Guy also had others to worry about as program manager of the Multicultural Health Institute. The nonprofit helps residents with low incomes access health care and other social services.

Many clients experienced similar distress after the storm, Guy said. Some were among the thousands of Floridians displaced from their homes. Others struggled to maintain their health after Ian disrupted parts of the healthcare system, temporarily shuttering storm-damaged facilities and causing demand for care to surge.

“It kind of left people scrambling,” said Guy. “After the storm there were a lot of people that went without medication. Doctors appointments, the routine of keeping up their health sometimes goes by the wayside because you're so busy trying to survive.”

Woman sits at a conference room table.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Vicki Guy has had to cope with her own trauma from Hurricane Ian while helping clients she works with as program manager for the Multicultural Health Institute.

Guy and other advocates in the state have spent the last year working to address the physical and mental health strain Ian has caused. And they’re applying lessons learned to help residents prepare this hurricane season.

After the storm, the Multicultural Health Institute shifted the way it provides services, by adding a focus on those affected by Hurricane Ian and expanding assistance south to the counties most impacted by the storm. For months, they worked with the humanitarian organization Project HOPE along with local churches, neighborhood associations, health departments and other groups to provide relief to those in need.

This included supplying basics like food and diapers, but also offering medical equipment and free screenings to help residents get their health back on track.

People stand around folding tables covered in supplies like diapers and toilet paper as part of a disaster relief event.
Vicki Guy
The Multicultural Health Institute partnered with other organizations to distribute disaster relief supplies to residents for months after Ian made landfall.

The anniversary of loss

Certified trauma specialist Helen Neal with the community group SRQ Strong has also been a partner in helping address Ian's mental wounds.

“People were devastated, they lost their homes, they lost everything, so it's been very hard this year,” she said.

Neal offers a supportive ear to clients who need to talk through their pain and works with them on breathing exercises and other tactics to better handle stress.

“You know what's happened has happened, you can't change it, but what you think about it you can, and that can help you move forward, so that's kind of what I do,” she said.

The one-year anniversary is going to be a tough time for many, Neal said. She worries especially about those connected to the nearly 150 people who died from the storm.

“Those grieving processes come back up, that hurt comes back up,” she said.

Woman stands in an office.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Helen Neal trains staff and clients at the Multicultural Health Institute how to understand trauma and build resilience to respond to future disasters.

For some, Ian isn't over

And one year later some people are still picking up the pieces. They’re waiting for relief money or insurance payouts to fix homes and buildings still moldy or unlivable from storm damage.

For working class families that can add more stress and lead to other health problems such as asthma or high blood pressure.

Ian highlights inequities in the region where “recovery” is often limited to the wealthy, said Dr. Lisa Merritt, executive director of the Multicultural Health Institute.

“And yet the people who serve those people, the essential workers, the caregivers, the gardeners, the restaurant workers, the basic just-making-it people that are really suffering the most are still struggling,” she said.

Home damaged by Hurricane Ian
Hardee County Sheriff's Office
Some Floridians have struggled to help rebuilding their homes in the year since Hurricane Ian damaged them.

Adding to the problem is that the storm struck Florida as the state was experiencing an affordable housing crisis and one of the highest inflation rates in the country – challenges that persist now.

“So imagine you're living somewhere, you kind of make it through the storm, you're doing alright and then – bam – they [landlords] raise the rent. And on top of that your child's inhaler is going to cost $250,” said Merritt.

As part of their ongoing work, Merritt's team of navigators help residents apply for financial assistance to access and pay for things like housing and health care.

She spoke as Hurricane Idalia approached the state last month and knew with lessons learned, their clients were in better shape this time around.

“Because we're checking on them all the time to make sure they're getting to their appointments, do they have their medications, do they have their diabetes supplies, etc.” she said. “So the importance of making sure they have what they need.”

Idalia spared Southwest Florida compared to Ian but Merritt said the work has to continue.

Helping residents get to a stable place year round will better prepare them mentally and physically for future storms, she said.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.