NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. – Tamara Searcy understood what a living nightmare was like after Hurricane Ian flipped her community upside down.
“It was real, real bad,” Searcy said. “It was times that I was praying…I had to push the dresser behind the window like ‘Lord, please don’t let the window break, God, please don’t let it break.’”
Parts of the Southwest Florida region were devastated after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Sept. 28. The Fort Myers area suffered the brunt of the storm, changing the lives and livelihoods of thousands who call the city home.
Searcy had to stay in her home for the duration of the storm.
“I was telling my kids, ‘Duck for cover inside of the closet,’” she recalled. “The whole first floor of my home was flooded. And these big ol’ oak trees were getting broken down and falling over outside.”
Her community was almost unrecognizable after Ian ripped through it, she said.
After the storm passed, her nightmare continued. Living without power and water left her wondering where she would get her next meal for her and her four kids.
“They’re just getting the water back on but they saying we have to boil it, but we have no electricity to boil it,” Searcy said. “I’m out here searching like ‘Oh, my God, I’m hungry.’”
The Cajun Navy, a citizen-led relief organization, helped to pull Tamara out of the nightmare she was living in.
The organization was founded after the 2016 great flood in South Louisiana. It grew from a need to assist neighbors and overwhelmed first responders, according to the organization’s website.
Cajun Navy partner Falon Alo said they respond to earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. After disaster strikes, the relief organization quickly dispatches good Samaritans and donations to the area, providing those affected with essentials to continue forward.
While the entire Southwest Florida region was hit by the Category 4 hurricane, Alo said the Cajun Navy chose to deploy its resources to Fort Myers because it is the heart of the impact zone.
“There are a lot of folks here who have really high needs,” Alo said. “It’s a very vulnerable population in a lot of areas.”
The Cajun Navy, established at one of its relief hubs in North Fort Myers, served over 1,000 households alone in its first weekend.
The organization spreads awareness about its cause, the need for volunteers and donations using social media.
According to Cajun Navy Social Media Coordinator Mary Deacetis, the word spreading via the internet is prompting people from all over the state to drive to Fort Myers to help.
She has seen people coming from Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami and Orlando volunteer their time to help those most affected get back on their feet.
“Everyone is so grateful,” Deacetis said. “That the donations, the volunteers, all of that, is here.”
At the Cajun Navy’s pop-up location referred to as “Safe Camp”, people have access to water, non-perishables, baby formula, diapers, feminine products and other resources necessary for survival.
Hundreds of cars driven by area residents affected by the hurricane wrap around the parking lot of Safe Camp. When each car reaches the distribution tents, volunteers ask what they need and fill their trunks with whatever they request.
Aside from physical resources, Deacetis said there is one intangible thing that all people going through Safe Camp need now, more than ever.
“People just need love right now,” she said. “A hug is a little thing, that is going a long way.
Searcy said at a time when it is rare to find good people doing things out of the goodness of their hearts, the Cajun Navy’s efforts are reassuring.
“To see somebody still care, and somebody still love you means a lot,” she said. “And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
This is not the first or last hurricane that Florida will see, Alo said. She believes people will get through this one like they have all of the others.
“We’re strong,” she said. “We’re Floridians.”
While Searcy isn’t sure exactly what is next for her in the recovery process, the Cajun Navy will help her rebuild her life piece by piece for the time being.
“We’re gonna make it,” Searcy said. “We’re survivors.”