Rusty and Jessica Foltz were left searching for temporary housing after Hurricane Ian and the rising waters of the Myakka River flooded their modest two-bedroom rental home on Myakka Drive in the Playmore subdivision just southeast of U.S. 41 and River Road in south Sarasota County.
“By the time we could actually get into our house – and it was walking on foot – it was six days later,” Jessica Foltz said.
Rusty Foltz added that “out of a four-bedroom house we were able to take our couch, our TV stand and our TVs as far as furniture.”
The house where they lived – next door to the one owned by Rusty’s parents Russell and Diane Foltz – is crumbling from the inside, with plaster breaking away above the baseboard in some sports or paint bubbling away from the wall in another above an electrical outlet that had been submerged by the flood.
Six-year-old Olivia spends weekdays with Rusty’s parents, so she can be near Taylor Ranch Elementary School but yearns for the weekends when she can be with her parents.
They’re staying in a borrowed 1994 Jamboree RV, parked in the side yard of the house Jessica’s mother, Adrea Timmins, rents in Port Charlotte.
Since Ian, Jessica’s 16-year-old daughter Mariah, has been staying with her dad in South Carolina and her 18-year-old daughter KayLynn has been splitting time with her boyfriend in North Port.
Technically that RV shouldn’t be there, Timmins admitted, though last week the landlord agreed it could remain for a while.
Rusty and Jessica share the RV with their two cats, Nubs and Harley; and a bearded dragon, Butterscotch, who stays in an aquarium.
A four-foot-long python, Grinch, is staying in Timmins’ house.
Rusty, Jessica and the children have applied for aid – including Direct Temporary Housing from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Most recently, Jessica said, she was asked to fill out a long-form application and include a lease.
The wait for direct housing assistance
Residents in Sarasota County were approved for temporary direct housing assistance from FEMA on Oct. 29, slightly later than some other counties hit by Ian.
The federal program is providing trailers and manufactured housing and other direct housing options to people whose homes are uninhabitable from Hurricane Ian.
That’s above and beyond the program that the Foltzes and other Sarasota residents already were eligible for that provided rental assistance and paid for hotel stays or lodging at short-term lodgings through AirBnb.
Both Sarasota County and the city of North Port have provisions available for homeowners to locate a trailer of manufactured home from FEMA on their lot while their homes are repaired, but people like the Foltzes must wait until local governments contact FEMA to determine a location for a FEMA camp similar to the one established near Punta Gorda Airport in 2004, after Hurricane Charley.
FEMA spokeswoman Renee Bafallis said recently that there had not yet been any dialogue between local and federal officials about where a group site could be located.
Potential sites typically need access to power as well as water and either sewer or septic but the county is not yet exploring that option.
Sarasota County spokeswoman Sara Nealeigh said via email Monday that “Sarasota County staff, in partnership with FEMA, is working to exhaust every option in the direct housing program, such as multi-family lease and repair and working with existing commercial parks, before the possibility of building up areas for FEMA housing units.
“Sarasota County continues to work with partners like Airbnb and FEMA on additional options for those displaced by Hurricane Ian outside of the direct housing program, such as Temporary Shelter Assistance,” she added.
Jessica Foltz said that she had been contacted by North Port High School, where her eldest daughter KayLynn enrolled in the Cyesis program, and promised help in applying for family lodging through Airbnb – through a program similar to the one the Sarasota County school district has found housing for teachers and staff.
When she called to ask about the status of her first application, she was told to submit the paperwork again.
Shelter from the storm
Rusty, Jessica, Timmins and the older children first planned to ride out Hurricane Ian at the Microtel Inn & Suites by Punta Gorda Airport.
Olivia went to Zephyrhills with Rusty’s parents to stay with his great-uncle in Zephyrhills.
Ian marked the third time in six years that Rusty has sent her there to be safe from an approaching storm.
The Monday before Ian hit, Timmins had also moved her mother Lori Cushing – who lives in a mobile home in Sarasota – into the Hampton Inn & Suites by Sarasota Bradenton international Airport.
The Tuesday before Ian made landfall, Microtel urged guests to leave.
Jessica said she was listening to Gov. Ron DeSantis provide storm updates when she realized, “It’s going to be a Charley storm; we need to go.”
Timmins said after that, “We wound up packing my van – my other vehicle at my house is packed with their things – we packed as much as we could that night and we all together high-tailed it up to Sarasota where my mom was.”
They all slept on the floor at the Hampton Inn hotel room, which, Timmins noted, never lost power or internet.
The next day they tried to return to the house on the Myakka Drive, Jessica said but “couldn’t get into our neighborhood – it was like a fishbowl.”
As the Myakka River rose, another foot of water entered their rental home.
That water contained both runoff from the river and whatever else oozed up from the drainage fields from the neighborhood’s septic systems.
Jessica said none of her kitchenware or baking contents were salvageable.
“Our refrigerator lifted up and was floating,” Jessica said during a brief tour of the interior.
“All of a sudden as I’m pulling baseboards, the walls started collapsing,” she added.
She won’t go inside the home without wearing a KN-95 mask, for fear of the mold. Olivia is forbidden from entering the home at all.
“You can smell the mildew in the house,” Jessica said. “You can smell it outside of the house too.”
Jessica, technically a stay-at-home mom, was shopping for Instacart to help pay bills.
Rusty, a mechanic who lost his tools because of the flood, is working as a roofer in Fort Myers. The work is plentiful but hectic.
The extensive damage, he said, “is still heart-wrenching to me.”
Many of the people who live in Playmore need as much help getting back in their feet as Rusty and Jessica.
“Out of the 36 years that I’ve been alive, this is the worst I’ve seen this neighborhood – the worst,” Rusty said.
Timmins added that people in many areas in south Sarasota and Charlotte counties have seen their suffering overshadowed by the devastation Ian brought to Lee County.
“This isn’t the only place that’s like this,” she said. “I have friends in Port Charlotte who lost their roof, their house was looted, so now her belongings are gone.”
Rusty looks to the west, where onetime pasture land was raised to create the new subdivisions in Wellen Park and north along River Road and can foresee similar development pushing his neighbors out, too.
For now, Rusty said, he parents are planning to clean up the place and stay but haven’t ruled out leaving either.
Should Rusty, Jessica and the family receive temporary FEMA housing, one thing is for sure, it would be temporary.
They’re already planning a move.
“We’re up in the air,” Jessica said. “We originally said Pennsylvania, then we said Ohio – now we’re thinking North Carolina.
“Or New Hampshire,” said Timmons, who added they’re originally from Long Island.
“It’s just because the cost of living is the same everywhere,” Jessica said. “Basically there’s nowhere cheaper than anywhere else.”