For hundreds of Northern retirees, paradise looks like the pastel-colored mobile homes just off A1A, the highway that runs the length of Florida’s eastern coast.
The Atlantic Ocean is just across the road, and the beach is flat and wide and firm – perfect for morning strolls and so different from their former homes in places like New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin. In the evenings, the residents sometimes drive their golf carts to the bank of the Halifax River to chat, laugh and sip cocktails.
Hurricane Matthew shattered all that 11 months ago, and now Hurricane Irma is threatening to do it again. Everyone has evacuated or is leaving, and no one knows what will be left when the wind dies down and the water recedes.
“What I’m worried about is the river meeting the ocean,” New Jersey retiree and resident Jeff Williams, 60, said Friday as he added screws and metal supports to the carport of his trailer. “It that happens, it will take all of these places out.”
Williams’ piece of heaven has a name – Surfside Estates. Judy and Howard Clay also live there, and they were worried as they evacuated to go ride out Irma with their son in central Florida, north of Orlando.
“We’re not sure if we’re going to be coming back to anything,” said Judy Clay, 63.
Florida is known as a haven for retirees as much as it is for sunshine, and Surfside Estates, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Daytona Beach, offers an affordable option for people who had middle-class lives. Small lots and mobile homes are available for around $150,000.
Most of the roughly 250 homes in the development were damaged when Matthew moved northward offshore without making landfall in Florida last October, and some never were repaired: A few empty lots dot streets with names like Anchorage, Windward and Nautilus.
Williams, who moved in just days before Matthew, has spent a lot of his time since repairing neighbors’ property. With the lowest property in the entire development, Brooklyn native Carolyn Cass-Larmore is proud she figured out how to do a lot by herself after river water invaded her home.
“I learned to do things like tipping over my brand-new LG washing machine to keep the motor out of the water,” she said before leaving ahead of Irma. “(After Matthew) I’d work, and people would encourage with things like, ‘Keep going, Carolyn. You’ve got this.'”
Cass-Larmore, who is going to stay with a son during Irma, has since bought a generator. She figures she’ll need it after Irma.
“That will get my pumps running after the hurricane,” she said.
Recovering from a hurricane isn’t cheap, particularly for people on fixed incomes. Matthew ripped off the entire front of the Clays’ home, costing them $32,000 in repairs to replace the structure plus drywall and floors.
But like others, they say they’ll be back regardless of what happens during Irma. All those blue and yellow and tan trailers will be back, too, either repaired or replaced.
“If we have to rebuild we will,” said Judy Clay. “I won’t live anywhere else.”