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Biden tours devastation from Hurricane Ian and promises Florida federal help

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden is promising swift federal help for people in the path of Hurricane Ian.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today we have one job and only one job, and that's to make sure the people of Florida get everything that they need to fully, thoroughly recover.

MARTINEZ: After a tour of ravaged neighborhoods, Biden acknowledged that a comeback will probably take not months but years. That reality is coming into focus for residents of the southwest Florida town of North Port. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Days after they were rescued by canoe, Alva Sulaty and George Perez tried to get back to their home. The water was still too high to get into their North Port neighborhood.

Really?

ALVA SULATY: We boated back in.

GEORGE PEREZ: I boated it.

SULATY: We boated back in to see the house...

PEREZ: I found a boat, actually.

SULATY: ...To check on the house.

PEREZ: I'm walking in. And nobody could give me a ride. And she - I told her, let me go check on the house and I'll come back. And I got halfway. And I seen a boat in somebody's front yard. I knocked on the door and nobody answered. So I grabbed it and pulled it. I said, come on, honey. Jump in. Let's go (laughter).

ELLIOTT: An overwhelming mess is what they found.

PEREZ: You see that waterline? That's how high the water was.

ELLIOTT: It's about two feet high. And their house isn't even in a flood zone. Ruined furniture is piled at the curb as they sort through drenched belongings, the sound of distant chainsaws buzzing in the neighborhood.

SULATY: So you clean one mess up. And then, as you start looking, you find another one. And you find another one. And you find another one.

ELLIOTT: They're contending with damage from both mucky floodwaters and rain that blew in because of wind damage. Several windows are blown out. And a bedroom ceiling collapsed. Sulaty's daughter, Tina Krasinski, is working to remove soaked baseboards and drywall to the waterline.

TINA KRASINSKI: Pulling out the wet insulation. And then we're getting out a dehumidifier and a mold detector in here because there's a lot of mold. And we're going to try to - until insurance comes through, I guess, just try to make it as livable as possible.

ELLIOTT: Krasinski lives in Sarasota and has been bringing supplies donated by friends to her mom's neighborhood in North Port ever since the storm. In the immediate aftermath, she used a canoe to help rescue stranded residents, including her family. She says people are almost in a daze as they confront the task ahead.

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ELLIOTT: All over North Port, people are nailing blue tarps to damaged roofs and keeping soaked belongings and downed trees at the curb. Michelle King has a pile of twisted, white metal roofing in the yard of her duplex. It's what's left of the carport blown away by Hurricane Ian. She's been home two days, cleaning up debris that blew into her home through a broken window.

MICHELLE KING: Well, inside the house, it's, like, normal. When I step outside, it's like a war zone. I just want to cry.

ELLIOTT: King has been through a lot. Before the storm, she evacuated with her 6-year-old son, Hunter, and her husband to her son's school that was the region's medical needs shelter. Ian ripped the roof off the school cafeteria. And the shelter flooded.

KING: Power started going off with a generator. My husband almost died twice there because he's on oxygen. So there was no toilets, no food, no water, no medicine, no roof, no patience.

ELLIOTT: She says nerves were so frazzled that an elderly woman threatened to punch her when Hunter got rowdy. Once Hurricane Ian passed, King says the family was evacuated by bus in rising floodwaters to a shelter in Sarasota, where they stayed for five days. She doesn't know when Hunter, a kindergartner, will be able to return to his school because it was so damaged. The toilets had backed up into the hallways. Hunter spent Wednesday morning with his great-aunt, June Farris (ph), who lives next door. They were arranging plastic tombstones and toy skeletons in front of her house.

JUNE FARRIS: Well, we're trying to put some Halloween decorations up for my nephew, my 6-year-old nephew, get a little normal back in the neighborhood after the bad storm.

ELLIOTT: Hunter likes the ones that make creepy sounds.

HUNTER: The skeleton dog and the skeleton cat.

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ELLIOTT: The family hopes the spooky scene in the front yard can help Hunter forget the scare of Hurricane Ian. His mom, Michelle King, says she won't be forgetting anytime soon.

KING: It's really hard. It's like I'm in, like, a movie. But I can't snap out of it. I can't press stop or pause and be like, OK, I'm back to normal.

ELLIOTT: But, she says, she knows it's going to be a long while before things are back to normal.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, North Port, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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