For years, Chris Rhodes, a special education teacher in Chicago, felt stunted and overworked.
With teaching prospects in Florida, Chris and his wife jumped at the chance to move.
Before long, the couple and their kids left behind the flat prairies of the Midwest, gambling on paradise – not yet seeing another side to the land of the sun.
Chris had always been great with kids.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, playing with cousins, nieces and nephews, he’d hear his mother, a teacher, often remark that he would make a great one himself.
After graduating from college, unsure of his next steps, Chris took a job at a therapeutic day school. There he worked as a teacher’s aide with children with developmental disabilities and special needs.
The work was demanding and draining – some days requiring a child to be restrained.
But Chris found a way to make connections, establishing bonds and teaching nonverbal children to signal emotions. When parents marveled about their child’s trust in him, Chris was filled with a sense of purpose.
“Maybe I’ve got something here,” he thought, imagining a career.
Chris studied for a master’s degree in special education, graduating in 2011. By then he had married Kate, a psychologist and counselor.
Soon Chris moved to a therapeutic high school, teaching English. But over time, he worked more with teens with disciplinary problems than with developmentally or learning-disabled youth.
“I was less a special ed teacher and more like a drug rehab teacher, which was frustrating for me because that wasn’t my job,” he said.
Chris and Kate had talked about relocating somewhere with their two small children, possibly to Florida, where her sister lived.
They packed up the kids, set their move to Florida for July, 2021. Chris was prepared to substitute teach. Then when he got a job offer with Sarasota County schools, it only solidified their plans for a fresh start.
'It's going to be a monster'
At first, Chris felt like he’d hit the lotto.
The Sarasota school district was great for their daughter, 8, and son, 5.
Kate’s counseling work – now through telehealth, due to the pandemic – transferred smoothly, without missing a beat.
And Chris loved his job teaching English and literature at Riverview High School, for kids with special needs as well as for students in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program.
At last, Chris could stretch his wings, reaching children with learning challenges, getting creative with IB lesson plans. He was quickly a popular teacher at the school.
“It was awesome. I finally got what I wanted to do,” he said.
What’s more, Florida life was an adventure. The family settled into a two-bedroom rental house less than 2 miles from the coast in South Venice, an area they liked for its quiet charm.
Every weekend, they explored the region – beaches, botanical gardens, museums and aquariums. After years cooped up from the pandemic or snow, they lapped up the sun and warmth.
“It felt like we were on an extended vacation,” he said.
After their first year, the rent went up by several hundred dollars a month, to close to $2,000.
Chris and Kate absorbed the increase, continuing to save. They would buy something when soaring prices calmed down, they figured. Besides, there were few other rental options they could afford.
Heading into late September, Chris’ ears perked up at the news of a storm.
Before it even had a name, before many people were paying attention, Chris sat glued to reports.
One forecaster predicted its path over Cuba. From there, the meteorologist said, it would gather strength, churning in the warm waters of the Gulf. What Chris heard next sent him calling for Kate:
“It’s going to be a monster.”
Chased by a storm
About a week later, Chris was still glued to the Weather Channel – this time, in a Boca Raton hotel room, where he had evacuated from Hurricane Ian with Kate, the kids, their bearded dragon and Josie, their Collie-mix.
Days later, they made their way back to Venice, searching their phones for news on the way. They found pictures of part of the Venice Theatre ripped to shreds. They passed destruction in North Port, miles of homes missing their roofs.
After an agonizing wait – expecting their house to be wiped out – Chris pulled onto their street.
Everything looked perfectly intact, including the lanai.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “This is nothing.”
And then they stepped inside the house.
Rugs squished under their feet. Muddy lines smeared couches. Clothes in dressers were damp or soaked.
About a foot of stormwater had filled the house.
The next several weeks turned into a blur.
There were days of wrangling with the rental company to get workers to the house. And treacherous commutes to the home of Kate’s sister near Tampa.
Jim Camelo, a social worker with Sarasota schools, heard of their plight. He got them a housing voucher from a disaster fund for school employees and families.
With it, Chris and his family stayed in an Airbnb. But by the end of October, with the voucher running out, workers still weren’t done with the house.
They spent two weeks in November in a hotel, most of which Chris and Kate covered. They also had to pay November’s rent.
Meanwhile, their renter’s insurance denied a claim. FEMA provided little aid. Amid the moves and chaos, both missed days of work.
Chris scoured alternative rentals, but if the market was tight before, now it was impossible to find anything available, with so many displaced by the storm.
He thought about giving up on their Florida dream.
“Okay,” he wondered, “do I need to call my parents and say we’re coming back to Illinois?”
Finally, the week of Thanksgiving, the house was ready for them to move back in. But it was nearly empty.
Chris and Kate spent thousands more to replace destroyed furniture and clothes, setting them back further.
Camelo stepped in again – this time with Season of Sharing – to cover December’s rent.
Long before Ian, through the pandemic and housing crisis, Camelo has been helping teachers and school staff with Season of Sharing. For many, the storm was one crisis among many.
“Some are right on the edge,” Camelo said.
Chris can’t thank Camelo enough.
“Without his help, I don’t know what we would have done,” Chris said. “We were lost.”
For Chris and Kate, life returned to normal the week of Christmas – when workers at last arrived to haul away the mountain of storm trash and furniture in their driveway.
After three months, the house finally feels like home again.
Chris, now 40, doesn’t know how long that will last – wary of what awaits when their lease renews this spring.
They would like to remain in Florida.
“There’s still so much for us to explore and do here,” he said.
The hurricane didn’t chase them off. but the ordeal that followed – coupled with the housing crisis – might.
It exhausted their savings and stalled their plans to buy a house.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to afford to stay,” Chris said. “But we’d like to. We’re not going anywhere unless we have to.”
See the story as it originally appeared in Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 29, 2023, here.
Photo by Thomas Bender, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.