One year after Ian, this Florida motel serves as a hurricane safety net

One year after Hurricane Ian, many displaced victims are still without homes, some stuck in makeshift lodgings, such as El Rancho Motel

Jorge Lopez ties up the hair of son Logan Lopez, 5, on right, as Josiah Lopez, 3, eats dinner in their room at El Rancho Motel in North Fort Myers, Fla. They have lived there for nearly a year after Hurricane Ian. (Thomas Simonetti)

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — Right before Halloween last year, a battered Ford F-150 pulled up to El Rancho Motel, an old coral and aqua-blue horseshoe of 12 rooms off the busy Tamiami highway, in between a Speedway gas station and RJ’s bar and grill, where you can still get a steak, lobster tail and house dessert for $10.

The truck was packed: three adults, a teenager, two young boys and three dogs. Jorge Lopez, a big man, got out and knocked on the small office door, its blinds drawn. He and his family were looking for a room, but they were not everyday guests.

The Lopez family had been living in a tent for weeks after losing nearly everything during Hurricane Ian. They stumbled on this aged motel, not knowing that it would become everything to and for them. Since that day, for nearly a year, the Lopezes have been living here, alongside seven other Ian victims. If they could, these displaced people would not choose to cram into a 400-square-foot room, but their other options — condemned trailers, sleeping in cars, mold in their baby’s room — were far worse.

“We try and make the best out of it,” Lopez said of their now home. But then he gets honest: “I just feel hopeless. I’ve just felt hopeless.”

A disaster is a swift sifter. In an instant, when all is gone, those with money, good jobs, reliable friends and families often land in a safe place. They can bounce back. Those who do not, those already on the edge, fall. And they can fall hard — further out of sight, deeper into darkness and trauma. Who, if anyone, catches them?

El Rancho and its owners — Dana and Peggy McGrath — are one such safety net. While they’ve welcomed some truckers and travelers the last year, the couple has primarily been landlords to elderly couples, families, veterans on fixed incomes, young parents with another on the way; taking in their cats, dogs, furniture, bad credit scores, tight and unpredictable budgets, criminal records, without needing to know much more than they’re in need.

“Should I blame them? Should I kick them out? Put them back in a tent?” Dana McGrath asked. “The world would. But the world is not right.”

Since last September, residents all over southwest Florida have been struggling to rebuild their lives after Ian killed — directly and indirectly — at least 150 people and caused $112 billion in damage, the costliest storm in the state’s history. There has been major progress — billions spent on rebuilding. But many wonder where that money has gone because, for them, recovery has been difficult and frustratingly slow. An unknown number of people are still displaced, because neither the state nor federal government has been keeping close track of them.

For the most vulnerable, like those at El Rancho, there has been no real recovery.

The Washington Post visited the motel in January, March, June, July and September. Little has changed for people such as the Lopez family, who’ve been squeezed into Room 11 since that October day; for Joseph Sull, who lives in Room 1; for Barbara Andrews and Joe Fallon, who live in Room 4.

Each time, they all shared the same frustrations and asked the same questions: Why is it so hard to get help? Why is it taking so long? How will we afford a place ever again?

What has changed for them is what they are losing: time, money, hope, patience, a future.

There’s “nothing special about any of this,” though, said Dana McGrath, small and wiry, with a shock of white hair and a striped shirt pocket always full of homemade cigarettes. “There are thousands of these,” he gestured to himself, to his motel, to its guests. “Everywhere you go. Roadside motels that are just human.”

Disaster after disaster, the federal and state governments have been unable to figure out how and where to quickly house scores of people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. So across the nation, in Oregon, California, Louisiana, North Carolina and elsewhere, budget motels such as El Rancho become sudden but lasting catchalls for climate refugees.

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Victims then stay there for months, or years, as the broken world around them rebuilds, usually stronger, trendier, more expensive. As the climate continues to warm, more and more Americans will fall like this, too. Billion-dollar catastrophes now happen back-to-back, sometimes hitting the same towns twice. In the last 20 years, Florida has seen the number of major hurricanes more than double compared with the two decades prior.

El Rancho is a snapshot of this strange kind of post-disaster existence. Are its now-residents grateful to be there? Extremely. But as grateful as they are, they spend many hours staring at the TV, the same beige walls, waiting to hear back from federal and state case workers who keep changing, not knowing if this motel will be their home for good. It’s killing them, Dana McGrath knows, to spend their days this way.

“None of them want to live here,” he said. “This was not their dream.”

Hurricane after hurricane

The couple has been renting rooms to storm victims since 2004, when a family living in their car after Hurricane Charley drove up, asking how much they’d charge for a night. Some people stay for a long time, like the woman in Room 7, who has been here since Irma hit in 2017. This is not charity, Dana McGrath emphasized; it’s just a different kind of business model.

He owns a real estate business and has other ventures, so in his mind, his balance sheet stays even. The McGraths didn’t charge guests for a few weeks after Ian, when El Rancho was still on generators, its property thrashed. Now, most of the hurricane guests pay $1,400 to $2,000 a month, unless they can’t, in which case they and Dana work something out. That might sound high, but factoring in a normal rental’s security deposit, first and last months’ rent, utilities, application and pet fees makes the motel a rare affordable option. Not to mention the barriers many people with troubled pasts face getting accepted into a place, if there are even any available.

Rent prices for a one-bedroom apartment in the Fort Myers area have jumped more than 30 percent in a year. The median rent now for an apartment is about $2,500, and low-priced places are hard to come by. Joseph Sull, a veteran in Room 1, was paying $650 for his entire trailer, for multiple rooms and a yard, and a porch and a community. That doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t find “crap” for that price, he said. “I’m on Social Security. You know, I’m 77 years old. It’s hard. It’s hard all the time.”

Sull is not a special case. Joe Fallon, another veteran, and his wife, Barbara Andrews, three doors down, are just like him. They have fixed incomes, health issues. The trailer they lived in for three years is gone, along with most of their belongings. The couple said they’ve been waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to put them in a trailer since October, but the agency keeps giving them “the runaround.”

In a statement, FEMA said it could not comment on individual cases. But in the wake of Ian, the agency said, it has provided rental assistance and funds to 386,000 households, and temporary lodging to 1,360 applicants.

Dana McGrath has seen a lot of disaster, but Ian was different. Usually, by now, more victims are back on their feet, out of his motel. A big problem, he says, is that too many people can barely afford to squeak by, let alone completely rebound.

If it wasn’t for El Rancho, the McGraths ask, where would these people go? If they sold their motel to the developers who keep making offers, what would it become? And then there is the ultimate question:

“What do they do when I die?” Dana McGrath flicked his cigarette. “You tell me.”

Dana McGrath likes to do and fix everything himself. He especially enjoys getting things unstuck, whether they be drains, generators or lives. He’s had a lot of experience.

The 72-year-old, a local Freemason chapter leader, real estate agent and self-described motelier, started his adult life living in a park tree in rural Missouri, working two jobs, after leaving home as soon as he was legally able. He glosses over that part of his life, simply stating that “the park was favorable to home.”

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He was raised tough and got tougher. He survived the Vietnam War and the onslaught of his comrades’ suicides. All that gave him a different gauge on what constitutes a “bad day.” Part of him is still over there, he says, which is why he doesn’t sleep much.

In the early ’90s, he and Peggy bought El Rancho. Like him, the dingy white roadside inn — built in the 1930s by a fellow Mason — had weathered a lot. The neighborhood was not much better off. “Street walkers used to walk down the street flashing, blasting everybody,” Dana McGrath chuckled. The couple decided to buy and revive it, modeling the motel after the Days Inns they stayed at with their children, back when “kids ate free.”

The neighborhood has cleaned up a bit, too. Although it’s still “redneck,” it’s not as dangerous, according to Dana.

There is still a lot of need, though, and Ian made it much worse. But that’s not because of climate change, he harped. He doesn’t believe in that. It’s the economy, the government’s failure to help and people’s inability to save.

Take the Lopez family. Dana tilts his head left, toward their packed porch, as his phone, which rings hundreds of times a day, blares “The Washington Post March.” That family, he said, is the ultimate example of what thousands face: “What do you do?”

When Lopez, 39, knocked on Dana McGrath’s office door last October, he had $1,000 to his name, and he was ready to hand it over for a week’s stay. The motel owner told him to keep it. El Rancho still had no power, its power poles snapped. The room would be empty for a while, anyway.

“Should I have taken the $1,000? I could have,” McGrath said. “But I was standing there looking at him …”

Home, at that point, for the Lopez family was a giant 10-person tent, the biggest and nicest one Walmart had at the time, which cost them $500. Lopez and his wife, Nymisis Pabon, pitched it on a friend’s lawn and filled it with air mattresses, an AC unit, a TV, video games and what possessions they could salvage from their crushed trailer, which a massive oak tree “completely taco’d.”

A loud, fast talker, Lopez has big hurdles in his recovery path and is open about why. He’s made a lot of mistakes, some big indiscretions. He has a criminal record. Battery charges after a drug deal when he was younger went bad, among others. Violence runs in his family, he says. His dad was in and out, uncles in prison. Left “unguided,” he got “sucked into gangs” early. When he turned 12, his grandmother started putting a knife in his pocket, telling him not to pull it out unless he needed to. His fists worked better anyway.

Rehabbing his life has not gone smoothly, either. He’s on probation, in messy custody battles. In 2020, he broke his back slipping on a wet Winn-Dixie floor, making his work as a landscaper and roofer extremely painful to do. His wife now works 80 hours a week at a Publix and a gas station to support everyone.

But Lopez had been making progress. In October 2021, the family finally locked down a “huge” home in a trailer park for $1,200 a month. His kids had their own rooms, his dogs had a big backyard, with a lanai. There was privacy. Life, he felt, was “as perfect as it was going to get.”

Not even a year later, Ian crushed that stabilizing force in an instant, with the family still inside it. After a spat with the landlord, they were sleeping outside, feeding the mosquitoes, as Lopez likes to say. Giovanni, his oldest, “was one of the only kids probably taking showers in the school.”

That’s when Lopez breaks down. He hates to think of that terrifying September day. It blew up the life he’d barely been piecing back together. It brought to the surface the shame, sadness and self-loathing he feels at not being able to provide for and properly house his family, for being “a piece of s— husband.” For having to tell his 5-year-old, Logan, who stands up straighter every time his father says his name, that for the longest time, they “were just camping,” that their homelessness was a fun adventure.

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“I had to tell him this is home when he knew, I could see that he knew, this is not home,” Lopez cried.

Logan, serious and always observing, knows El Rancho isn’t a “home,” either, but he rolls with it. His football practice is down the street, and he can take the city bus pretty easily to school when his dad’s 20-year-old truck won’t start. He shares a tiny bedroom with his grandmother and 3-year-old brother. His parents sleep in a big bed, which Joe Fallon and Barbara Andrews gave the family to use, crammed in the living space. That’s where he likes to eat and watch TV. Their dogs are in the kitchen; clothes and toys fill any open corner. All five people use one bathroom.

There were six, but Giovanni, Lopez’s teenage son, left this past spring, after getting in a big blow-up fight with his dad. It was “because of our living conditions,” Lopez said as he hung his head. “He’s 18 years old, and I had him sleeping in the kitchen.” When Lopez talks about what he lost in the hurricane, its impact on him, he always comes back to his son.

“Me losing Giovanni has been probably harder than the hurricane. That hit me harder than anything,” he said. “I didn’t even know what the hell an anxiety attack was until my son left. I caught myself breathing real hard, having to run the hell out of the apartment. Watching anything sad flares it up.”

The family says they are still waiting for reimbursements from FEMA and a trailer from Unite Florida. Pabon, petite with big brown eyes, says she’s been emailing a caseworker from the state’s disaster organization for about three weeks.

After The Post reached out, Unite Florida said it had found a spot for the family a few months ago, but Pabon couldn’t pass a background check. Then things stalled. The group affirmed it is working with her “to identify alternate sheltering solutions.” Lopez said someone from the group finally called them back earlier this week.

Pabon is only 29, but life after Ian, all the hours on her feet, has wrecked her. But she has to keep working — she doesn’t “ever want to be living in a tent with my family again.”

“Experiencing that was so horrible,” she said, slumping in a chair in between shifts. “A lot of people think you can just get back on your feet, two to three months, you’re back to normal.”

‘What’s the point?’

Normal is what Joseph Sull dreams of. He wakes up most days now wondering why he does. “What’s the point?” he asks. Every day is the same. Every day, he swings his feet out from under a brown-and-white Walmart quilt that he doesn’t own but has become his most special possession. He’s taken it with him from room to room to room since his first night here, after disaster responders rescued him from his flooded trailer. Peggy McGrath keeps offering to wash it. Sull keeps waving her off. He doesn’t know why. She does.

He then opens his door, drags an old desk chair to the edge and sits where he can feel something fresh, the humid Florida air. He sits there, he calculates, about 12 hours a day, portioning out his tobacco, tossing nuts to two squirrels he’s claimed as his pets. He refuses to name them, though, assuming he’ll lose them, too, at some point. People come, go; he has to look at his phone to find out what day it is.

“I had a life before, in my other place,” he said, talking about his friends, their old bar.

Each night he stays at El Rancho, the little money that he has dwindles. He budgets that he’s got four more months left here, then? “Maybe Dana will work something out for me,” he said, shrugging.

One blazing hot afternoon in July, Sull taped a piece of white paper under the gold 1 on his door. “Don’t want to do this anymore,” he scrawled.

But he did, he does. They all do.

Can you blame him? Dana McGrath folds his hands.

“What else can they do?”

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