Good Samaritan village evacuees confront loss and uncertainty three weeks after Hurricane Ian
Update: Osceola County lifted the mandatory evacuation order for Kissmmee Village on Monday.
More than three weeks after Hurricane Ian devastated people across Florida, many seniors who fled a flooded retirement community near Kissimmee feel abandoned as they search for answers and new housing.
Last Wednesday, several evacuees from the Good Samaritan Society's Kissimmee Village who have taken refuge about five miles down the road at the Red Lion Hotel spoke about their experiences.
'Like a paradise'
Seventy-two-year-old Mary Burgoon and her husband moved into an apartment at Kissimmee Village a few months ago.
"It was like a paradise for all of us," she said. "We help each other with anything. We were happy where we were." Soon after Burgoon moved in, her neighbors came to adore her, giving her the nickname Snow White.
She would feed the squirrels and a duck with a gimpy leg, and when she went on vacation, she gave her neighbors the duck's schedule.
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Yellow tape blocks the main entrance to Kissimmee Village. Residents enter through a side gate. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News[/caption]
FEMA is now paying for Burgoon and 100 or so other evacuees to stay at the Red Lion Hotel in Kissimmee (estimates from hotel staff ranged from 70 to 150).
Late Wednesday afternoon, a few of the neighbors gathered in an alcove near the lobby. Burgoon looked through photos on her phone showing the devastation at her apartment.
"It was a beautiful place," she said amid tears. "Then our dreams were broken and completely gone overnight, when we lost everything."
This isn’t the first time Kissimmee Village has flooded. Five years ago, after Hurricane Irma, residents faced the same problem, but this time the water levels were higher.
Burgoon wasn't told about that, she said. "So we weren't prepared for such a big loss. And here we are, all of our friends together, with no place to go and our dreams gone."
She said the apartment was going to be the last place they lived. Now, like so many seniors from Kissimmee Village, she struggles to find a new home.
"We were all day long looking for a place. And no matter what we see, I walk out crying, 'cause I can't find what we had," Burgoon said.
1,300 independent living residents
It had 1,300 residents living on mobile home lots and in about 600 independent living apartments. Most of the apartments are arranged in in quads -- groups of 12 around open lawns, many of which have trees.
In an email, the Good Samaritan Society said that, of those 600 apartments, 523 will have to be demolished.
There were also 150 residents in the skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. They have been temporarily relocated to DeLand.
Among residents, some are very angry. Some say the Good Samaritan Society should be doing more to help with housing. Residents also say they feel misled about the flood risk.
Many also feel it is taking too long to get help.
"When you're 75 years old, or 80 years old, or 90 years old, and this is where you live and this is all you have, people deserve an answer quicker than their getting it," said resident Gary Fairchild.
He says he and his wife are in a better place than most. They have flood insurance, and though their mobile home was damaged, most of their things are OK.
"Yesterday we put our stuff in PODS," he said. "And we're on our way to Maine. My son, my son has a two-family house. So we're going to live with him for a while."
In the email, a Good Samaritan Society executive said the renters are provided with comprehensive information about flood and hurricane preparation and were urged to get insurance.
She said staff are working with residents to help them find help from FEMA, the Red Cross and other agencies.
A mandatory Osceola County evacuation order remained in place last week, but was lifted on Monday, Oct. 24. The county plans a town hall meeting for Good Samaritan evacuees beginning 6 p.m. Monday at 1392 E. Vine St. in Kissimmee.
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Kim and Ken Bradley spent much of their day last Wednesday assisting other Hurricane Ian evacuees. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News[/caption]
Many residents want to leave or will have to leave Kissimmee Village for good. Still, Kim Bradley and her husband, Ken, said they will return if they can, even though their home was flooded twice, by hurricanes Irma and Ian.
"We want to stay at Good Samaritan, even though this is our second time," Kim Bradley said. "But they have higher grounds. So we want to move to higher ground. We were in a lower, with the apartments."
Kissimmee Village residents are allowed access to their homes during the day but are not allowed to remain.
Some mobile home residents escaped major damage and some of those people moved back despite the evacuation order. They were using portable toilets for lack of a working sewer system. Late last week, the sewer system was restored.
They just won’t leave, Kim Bradley said. "And the air is polluted. The grounds are polluted. That smell is unbelievable. I don't understand how they're living there."
A spirit of mutual support
Evacuees said Central Florida organizations -- and some individuals -- have pitched in to provide food and other help.
The Senior Resource Alliance organized a meeting with about 50 evacuees at the hotel -- announcing hot meals twice a day and connecting them with lawyers from Community Legal Services.
The seniors raised concerns about looting -- one had a TV stolen, another's golf cart is missing. They talked about frustrations with FEMA and concerns about their legal rights and the possibility of suing the Good Samaritan Society.
Amid the controversies, residents like the Bradleys go about their day helping neighbors -- retrieving a motorized wheelchair, taking another senior shopping.
There's a spirit of mutual support among the evacuees.
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Rich and Linda Reiter, who lead the Good Samaritan Community Church, have brought their ministry to the Red Lion Hotel. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News[/caption]
Pastor Rich Reiter is one of them. He’s the newly arrived leader of the Good Samaritan Community Church.
"The first four weeks were great," he said. "I mean, it was like, yeah, this is a wonderful place to do ministry. This is a wonderful church for my wife and I to pastor at this season of our life. … And then that week five hit. Week five came in a flood."
Reiter is beginning to understand why they felt called to Kissimmee Village, he said. "God has put us here for such a time as this, to bring blessing, to help people and to rebuild and to restore and to help people see that God is a good God. All the time."
Among those devastated by the flood, Lucille Bishop said she lost almost everything.
"We have nothing left, nothing at all," she said. "No furniture, no nothing at all. No pictures, my family pictures, my grandchildren, my parents, my grandparents. I have nothing left."
Bishop said she and her partner are truly homeless amid Central Florida's affordable housing crisis.
"I don't know where we're going to go because everything is so expensive. And Maureen and I live on Social Security, and very little. And the apartments now, the rents are ridiculous, they're ridiculous."
At 76, Bishop says the last thing she wants to do is start over, returning once again to the poverty she knew as a child.