Olivia McLees was jolted awake at 2 a.m. by the buzzing of her cell phone.
Staring at the screen, she couldn’t believe what she read -- an app notification that her car had been unlocked.
Someone must be stealing it, she thought, frantically texting her mother but getting no reply.
After losing power during Hurricane Ian Olivia, 31, had left the home they shared on nine acres in the Hidden River community near the Myakka River. She and her daughters – ages 9 and 5 months – went to stay with the baby’s father in Orlando, while her mother remained behind with the cars, horses and nine dogs.
At 4 a.m. that October morning, Olivia finally heard back, a cryptic text from her mother saying, “I’m ok.”
Four hours after that she called, the news she relayed far worse than a stolen car or anything Olivia could imagine.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Susan Kucia, 60, told her daughter, her voice shaky as she described rescuers and rising flood waters. “We lost everything.”
Calm before storm
Ahead of Hurricane Ian, Olivia’s life was getting on track.
Her oldest daughter, Addalyn, had just returned from living with her father’s relatives up north to remain with Olivia. Addalyn loved her new school, had made friends and joined the cheerleading squad.
“For me to have her is a blessing,” Olivia said.
Olivia cared for her daughters and helped mind the house, horses and dogs at the homestead they shared with Kucia, who works in the auto business. One dog, in particular, was Olivia’s favorite – Toby, a Greyhound mix rescue.
Despite the arrival of a newborn, Olivia was settling into a routine with the girls and her mother, with whom she’d always been close.
They weathered Ian together, lighting candles when the power went out.
When Olivia went with the girls to Orlando, Kucia stayed behind, both of them convinced it would be just a few days before electricity was restored.
By the time Kucia woke up in the early hours of Oct. 1, water was in the house – residents later blaming the community’s flooding on a malfunctioning levee.
In the end, the house was inundated with almost four feet of water. Kucia climbed atop a golf cart, holding four of their nine dogs in her arms, awaiting rescue via helicopter or boat.
When she got through to Olivia, she described the night’s horror, the loss of the cars and the destruction in the house. But she and the dogs and horses were safe – everyone but Toby, who was nowhere to be found.
“That’s when I fell to my knees,” Olivia said.
Weeks went by without any response from the insurance company. The family had flood insurance, but in the meantime, Kucia was paying for expenses out of pocket.
FEMA approved emergency assistance, but their assigned hotels were full and others were too far away, especially to keep Addalyn in school. Kucia paid for close-by hotel stays for the family on her own.
Olivia worried about the stability she’d finally established for Addalyn, who had lost her clothes, school supplies and cheerleading pompoms in the flood.
Jim Camelo, a Sarasota County School District social worker, stepped in to help the family with gift cards. He lined up an Airbnb stay through the district’s Family Emergency Housing program.
But they needed a little more help.
Kucia had fallen behind on the mortgage to the house, needing to pay the bulk of the cost to replace two cars and the start of home repairs until insurance kicked in.
Area case managers are noting a surge of families struggling in limbo since Ian or falling through the cracks of aid.
Easing the burden of this family's instability, Camelo was able to tap Season of Sharing to pay $2,000 toward Kucia’s mortgage in November.
Olivia watched the relief wash over the face of her mother, whom she suspects is still traumatized form the flood.
“Is it real, Olivia?” her mother asked her about the help they received, overwhelmed with gratitude.
For now, Kucia has bought a small trailer for them to live in on her land while awaiting more help from insurance and the repairs on the house.
The four of them moved in right after Thanksgiving.
It’s tight, but at least they are back home, Olivia said.
Toby has still not been found.
They’re waiting to get the horses back from neighbors until they can clear out the mud.
At the moment, Olivia’s main focus is reestablishing stability for her mother and her kids.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” Olivia said.
**********To see this story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 11, 2022, click here.
Photo by Thomas Bender, Sarasota Herald-Tribune