John Grindrod: For some, the 2022 losses were far more personal

As we head into the start of another year with which we are all blessed, there’s always some accounting to be done as to what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in the year now in the history books.

Now, for most of us, hopefully, those gains include a continued awareness of the beauty that still exists in the world that often seems so very troubling as well as an appreciation that, whatever the obstacles that have been placed before us, since I’ve written this and you’re reading it, they’ve been conquered. Any day we’re still spoken of in the present tense is indeed a good day.

As far as losses, well, for many, this past year has been difficult weathering those metaphorical storms of tanking financial markets and the rising costs of doing life’s business in between paychecks.

However, no matter the difficulty of those figurative storms, they pale in comparison to those who suffered such massive losses from real storms. One of those with whom I’ve recently spoken is someone I’ve known since we sat in the little desks in Sister Joseph Andre’s St. Charles second-grade classroom, long-time Lima resident Tony Azzarello.

Tony and his wife Sandi are familiar to many here in Lima, not only for the friends they gathered during their several decades in Lima before moving to Fort Meyers, Florida, in 2018 but also because of Tony’s career in real estate as the face of Azzarello Realty.

For the past four years as newly minted Floridians, Tony and Sandi were indeed living their best lives, in far warmer temperatures in a place where shovels are used in the garden, not to make paths from the front porch to a car with a quarter inch of windshield ice glaze. In addition to far more pleasing weather, Tony and Sandi were gathering new friends while Tony kept his hand in the real-estate game as an agent for Berkshire Hathaway.

Then it happened. Late September brought a far more frightening climatic scenario than anything they had ever experienced during their Buckeye lives. While ensconced in their prefab home in a peaceful 55-and-over park built along a channel that connected to The Gulf, news of a hurricane of great magnitude, using the parlance of Weather Channel superstar Jim Cantore, a potential Cat 5 storm with winds of 157 miles an hour or higher was bearing down on Florida, with Fort Myers directly in the crosshairs, a storm that would be accorded the name Ian.

Recalls Tony of that Tuesday, the 28th day of September, when he and Sandi heeded the warning to evacuate, “There were some in our community that decided to stay and try to ride it out, but we decided not to take any chances. We gathered what we thought were essentials, my guns, our jewelry and some important papers and, of course, as much clothing as we could fit into the car and headed to our granddaughter’s in Charleston, South Carolina.”

When the storm hit Fort Myers the next day, winds were sustained at 150 miles per hour, a meteorological wallop just seven miles per hour shy of a Category 5.

By week’s end, when Tony and Sandi were allowed back into the area to see what Ian had wrought, they were shocked.

Recalls Tony, “The storm surge came right up the channel and flooded the entire park. We had five feet of water in the house. Of course when the waters subsided, we could see that all the floors were warped, and the house had even been knocked four feet off the foundation. While we were able to salvage some things, it wasn’t much.”

“When the insurance company adjusters came and the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] reps inspected, the house was condemned, a total loss. As for the entire beach area, well, it was basically gone, just piles of rubble and abandoned, disabled cars.

So, what happens when the home you left just 48 hours or so earlier is uninhabitable? Well, for the Azzarellos, for weeks stretching into months as they awaited insurance settlements and assistance from FEMA, they’ve become hotel gypsies.

As for that particular lifestyle, well, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is there will eventually be reimbursement from FEMA for the hotel charges. The bad has been the constant leapfrogging from one hotel to another. And, as for the downright ugly, Tony has no problem articulating that.

“After living in houses our entire married life, it’s definitely not easy acclimating to a single-room existence. Staying in hotels on vacation is fine, but full time? Certainly not.”

Despite the devastation that surrounded him when he returned to what was once home, Tony remains philosophically optimistic as he assess what were his losses and gains in 2022.

“While it’s not easy at 71 years old to start over, I look at it this way. You can always replace things, but you can’t replace lives. While our material losses were substantial, our greatest gain far outweighs them all. We’re still here.”

For my lifelong friend Azzy and his sweet wife Sandi, they’ll begin their rebuild of their Floridian lives in 2023, hoping what we all do the coming year: that it’s exciting, not catastrophic.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].