IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Hands folded and brown eyes hollow, Mario Valentine sat on his beige, faux-leather couch, staring at the cracked white panels and shredded pink insulation that, before the storm, had been the front wall of his mobile home. Above his head, where the roof used to be, was a row of wooden ribs, stripped bare. Beyond those was nothing but gray sky.
Sitting next to the farmworker, with her head on his shoulder and her hand on his knee, was Valentine’s 5-year-old daughter, Maria. She, too, looked ahead, silent.
All around Immokalee — an inland Southwest Florida town of 24,000, where nearly half the residents live in poverty — was evidence of Hurricane Irma’s power. Uprooted trees had blocked streets and smashed car windshields. Roofs were ripped off. One mobile home looked like a soda can that had been crushed under a boot heel.
“I saw Wilma, Andrew and Charley,” said Jackson Pierre, who lives nearby and has been a town resident for more than 15 years. “This was worse.”
The people here had expected stiff wind and rain, but not this. Not destruction. Not on their side of the peninsula.
Hurricane Irma, its immense spiral stretching 300 miles in diameter, affected all of Florida in some way. A crane toppled in Miami, at the bottom of the state, hours before rivers flooded in Jacksonville, at the top. From the Keys to the Panhandle, tons of debris were ripped from buildings and trees and strewn across roadways while as many as 12 million people lost power.
And yet, for all the far-reaching havoc it wrought, Irma didn’t do what people thought it would do.
The storm tore through more than 5,000 miles of ocean, ravaging the Caribbean before it reached the United States on Sunday. But for Florida, a place that had been bracing for a generational tempest that many feared would forever change their beloved coastline, it was the last 100 miles of its overseas trek that mattered most.
For days, meteorologists had guessed that the storm would plod west, then veer north and slam into the state’s southeast corner near Miami. The forecast cone had at one point predicted Irma would strike Miami Beach, bringing 150-mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge to a city that sometimes floods after summer showers. There were unceasing comparisons to Andrew, the 1992 hurricane that caused billions of dollars in damage and killed dozens in South Florida.
“Leave now,” Gov. Rick Scott (R) had pleaded with the region’s residents as they packed up cars, boarded up windows and said goodbye to homes they knew might not exist when they returned.
Irma, though, kept churning west — past the South Beach condos, past the Miami high-rises, past Biscayne Bay — until, due south of the Sunshine State’s famous Keys, it finally turned through them. It spared one coast that had been awaiting devastation and devastated another coast that had been awaiting not much at all.
In Immokalee, Pierre, a disabled Haitian farmworker, had anticipated that the hurricane would have so little impact on his town that he and his wife, Barbara, tried riding it out in their mobile home.
“We were here until we saw the tree fall down on the front porch,” she said, recalling that they immediately left, in the middle of the storm, to walk — “no, run” — to the high school that served as an emergency storm shelter.
Down the street on Monday, Petrona Nunez, 24, held her toddler’s hand as she watched her husband, father and brother prop up a wobbly ladder to staple plastic sheets over the top and end of the mobile home where they’ve lived for more than a decade.
She works for the Florida Department of Agriculture, but the rest of her family members have manual labor jobs. Someone offered them a free night in a hotel, but after that, Nunez said, “we’ll just have to save up our money and fix it, I guess — if they let us fix it.”
That was the feeling of despair that, 112 miles away, Kat Suarez and her family had expected to face when they returned to their mobile home on Florida’s Atlantic Coast on Monday.
There, amid the yellow and turquoise of Miami’s Royal Duke trailer park, Suarez, 24, had shared her dearest memories — all those barbecues and birthdays, all with neighbors she considered friends. Her blue two-bedroom home had survived hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Wilma, but Irma felt like something different. It was just so big, so menacing.
Before landfall, she and her mom, sister and nephews packed up their clothes and Social Security cards and birth certificates and fled to her brother’s home nearby.
As the lights flickered and a lamp post outside quivered, they grew more and more nervous that their own home wouldn’t survive.
But then the wind seemed to subside and the rain let up, so they anxiously decided to race back. The yard was cluttered with branches, and a tree had toppled onto the roof — but their home was still standing.
In fact, all of the homes in the park — the community they’d cared for over so many years — were still standing, and because so many people there hadn’t believed that was possible, no one seemed to mind the demolished patios or that the power was knocked out and could take days to restore.
Suarez and her family cooked Honduran food — beans, cheese and a flatbread called baleada — in pans atop a grill for their neighbors. Nearby, children pedaled around on bikes as men cracked open coconuts with machetes for those helping to clean up the mess.
People smiled as they chatted in Spanish about their good fortune. A few laughed.
And Suarez stared at her home, the one with white trim that her family had lived in since before she was born.
“I didn’t think it was going to be here when we got back,” she said. But it was, and on Monday night, she and her family were moving back in.