The treasured belongings lost and found in Hurricane Ian’s debris

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FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — The beachfront mobile-home community had been reduced to piles of rubble. But as members of the Virginia search-and-rescue team that I was embedded with combed through the wreckage left by Hurricane Ian, small treasures were found.

There were fragile items like glass bottles that somehow escaped unscathed — and sturdier ones, like ammunition scattered among the debris. Faded art. Dirtied clothes. Distinctly Florida mementos like a snorkel and a “Welcome to Fort Myers Beach” sign. A tattered American flag that they carefully collected and folded.

But the rescuers didn’t have a clue about who owned what. Most of the debris ended up in stacks of rubbish to be thrown away.

As I craned my neck and squinted my eyes under the searing Florida sun to watch them work, I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing people’s lives being carried away. Millions of cubic yards of debris is expected to be removed in hard-hit Lee County. State and local officials will have to decide what to do with all the trash.

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But not everything was tossed. Rescuers and neighbors recognized that for those who had lost everything, finding even one treasured belonging could be priceless. So I set out on a mission to tell the stories behind some of the items lost in the debris.

A boat named Eagle One. A framed photograph containing the portrait of a smiling, bespectacled teenage girl. A nurse’s journal filled with delicate cursive writing now smudged by water and sand. Love letters. Tax return filings for Christmas tree sales.

Some of these belongings have been reunited with their owners. Others are still a mystery.

Nelson McCourry could not find his boat.

Before the Category 4 hurricane razed his new home in Fort Myers Beach, McCourry had firmly tied the Eagle One to a mooring ball in Matanzas Harbor, a narrow channel dividing two barrier islands. When he returned to that spot, the 42-foot trawler was nowhere to be seen.

McCourry and his wife had just begun to lay roots in the community, known for its pristine beaches and laid-back lifestyle. They planned to make it their full-time home when they retired in two years. Their boat was a nod to their past and their future: It had the name of their hometown in Pennsylvania scrawled across the white stern, and the couple imagined leisurely afternoons sailing off Florida in their golden years.

Figuring Ian’s 6-foot swell carried the boat to nearby San Carlos Island, McCourry went searching through miles of debris, clad in flip-flops as he stepped over glass, nails and other dangerous rubble. One suspicious man threatened to shoot him for trespassing. (“I got a gun in my bag, too,” Nelson responded. “You better hit me because I know I’ll hit you.”)

Then he spotted a boat precariously sandwiched between another vessel and a leaning palm tree. It didn’t look like his boat at first. But as he made his way back to a debris-cluttered road, he noticed the name of his hailing port: Skippack.

“Holy s—,” he said. “There it is.”

The scratched and dented hull sat on shards of building materials. The doors and windows were blown out. A grayish sludge covered the teak-covered interior. The arch that held the GPS equipment was torn off.

The water had probably pulled the nose underwater until the blue rope McCourry had used to anchor it snapped, pushing the boat into a minefield of debris. It’s a goner, he thought — far too damaged to even think about trying to repair.

But he managed to salvage some valuables inside: A stack of necessary insurance papers. The boat’s registration. And his wife’s cherished, anchor-shaped pillow. He turned back to the Eagle One and said goodbye.

McCourry teared up as he told me about how rather than lamenting his ruined belongings, he finds himself grieving the loss of the life he had hoped to enjoy into his old age. Now he is preparing to return home to Pennsylvania, for good.

“My whole life,” he said, looking at the piles and piles of debris, his boat now one more piece of trash. “I try to stop catching myself feeling sorry for myself, because I know so many people who lost everything. But it’s the life I built for myself down here that I’m going to miss.”

Before Hurricane Ian, Ellie Gressman’s high school headshot sat in an ornate silver frame in her 103-year-old grandfather’s family room.

After, it wound up nestled in what was left of a stranger’s bedroom — several houses and a canal away from Harold Gressman’s stilted “Old Florida” style home.

Harold sheltered with his son and daughter-in-law outside the surge’s reach. It was a good thing he did. The family soon learned Ian’s powerful storm surge had emptied out the contents of his home. Ellie said her grandfather was overcome by stress and grief — and days later he died in his sleep. The centenarian, known as a socialite by his family, was “very witty and silly right to the end,” she said.

In the storm’s aftermath, Ellie, who lives in California, grappled with the bad news from her relatives in Florida, which didn’t seem to abate.

Then Facebook began alerting her that she had been tagged in the comments of a post on a Fort Myers community page.

“I found the totally unscathed picture frame/photo of this beautiful young lady on the floor of what was once my bedroom!” Julizza Gil Suarez wrote. “How it got there with no damages is a mystery to me. Does anyone recognize her? I’m sure her and her family would love to know this personal item was saved!”

The frame glimmered and the glass hadn’t even shattered. Amid the wreckage, she’d found the image of a smiling blonde high school girl with thick black glasses and a teal floral blouse.

Minutes later friends began chiming in, tagging Ellie in the comments. That’s where I spotted it, too, and I reached out to both women in hopes of learning more. Ellie’s mom soon met up with Gil Suarez to retrieve the photo.

After losing her beloved, unflappable grandfather, the picture from his house has even greater value to Ellie — it’s a reminder of how much he loved her. As a child, Ellie spent her weekends at her grandparents’ house, enjoying family time by the pool.

“It’s just cool to realize that things can be okay,” Ellie said. “Things can be found again.”

‘One big, huge puzzle’

It started with a promise.

A Chicago police officer vowed never to go back to his job in the Windy City after setting eyes on the toasty beaches and emerald waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast. But year after year he would visit only to return to frigid Chicago — and his friends at the Pier Peddler, a beachwear store, began taking his promise for a joke.

Then one day in the early 2000s he walked into the Cereceda family’s store, pinned his police patch to a wall next to the cash register and announced he had retired.

Customers took notice. Soon others began adding their own police, fire and paramedic patches. Over the next two decades, hundreds were collected — so many that Anita Cereceda had enough to create a decorative trim with them around the shop.

Some represent small towns, others big cities or distant countries. There are unique units, like diving teams. One patch belonged to a New York firefighter who died at the twin towers on 9/11. Many were stitched with colorful images of eagles, crowns, buildings and flags symbolizing a department’s role and origins.

“It’s snowballed into being an unbelievable collection of patches from all over the world,” Cereceda said, “with the most beautiful stories that came along with them.”

When Ian leveled the main commercial area in Fort Myers Beach, nicknamed “Times Square,” it destroyed the Pier Peddler — and took all the patches, too.

That’s until some people started finding the boards Cereceda had attached the patches to scattered around town. One was a mile and a half away, washed against a dock. Another was eight blocks from the shop, resting near someone’s fence. The patches on them were mostly intact.

Neighbors who remembered Cereceda and her family’s collection put together the connection. One woman found a patch board behind some garbage cans six blocks away and left it on Cereceda’s porch. When she returned home and picked up the recovered piece, she sobbed.

Cereceda didn’t expect to be reunited with her shop’s missing treasures. She’s still hoping to find other items she’s lost — such as her grandmother’s antique, navy-blue velvet sofa.

“Fort Myers Beach right now is one big, huge puzzle that the pieces are scrambled all over the place,” she told me, “and when you find a piece of the puzzle you just want to find where it belongs.”

A few days after Joe and Karen Paine learned Ian had leveled their home, he told her he wished they still had the letters he had written her 45 years ago when he was stationed on Parris Island, S.C., for Marine Corps training.

The married couple would pull out the bundle every few years from her bedside table and read them together, laughing at their youthful naivete.

They hadn’t looked at the letters anytime recently, and now they were gone. Their white-and-sea-foam-green beachfront cottage had floated away in the storm, leaving only a few salvageable items in its wake. Joe found Karen’s heart-shaped locket with her parents’ ashes beneath the debris. Also discovered in perfect condition was a plate their daughter made when she was 7, and a mug she gave Karen when they moved to Florida.

Everything they were able to salvage fit in an RV that they moved to Bonita Springs. The letters, as a well as a cross-shaped necklace Karen’s mother always wore and one of his service medals were nowhere to be found.

One block away, Nikki Barrett’s yard was cluttered with items she didn’t recognize. Her porch had turned into a net of sorts, and debris was piled along a line of bamboo trees. Her neighbors looked through the stacks for their lost belongings.

Barrett knew anything that didn’t get scooped up was destined for the garbage, so she searched for what might be traceable to owners. She spotted the letters, jewelry and a service medal. The pile of yellowing envelopes — bound by a blue shoelace and addressed to a Karen Maher from an officer in the Marine Corps — felt special.

Barrett figured Maher might be Karen’s maiden name and searched for her with Joe’s last name. That turned up a Karen Paine who lived in Fort Myers Beach. Through Facebook, they were able to connect — just days after Joe had told Karen how much he missed the letters.

“People have been so kind, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s devastating you lost your home,’ and it is, but it’s items like that that really weigh on you,” Karen said. “We can get more furniture, we can get another refrigerator and all of that stuff. But there are some things you can’t replace.”

It was caked in the gray sludge that matted San Carlos Island after the storm surge retreated, but the black leather-bound notebook looked important.

I called out to colleague and photojournalist Michael Robinson Chavez, who was documenting the scene and looked up to see a man walking toward us. I quickly picked up the notebook before I lost its place and walked toward Jeff Parce to introduce myself.

I showed him the journal I had found near his home, but he didn’t recognize it. He agreed it looked like it had personal value. The entries were carefully organized by alphabet-labeled dividers, notes scrawled in every available space. Surely it didn’t deserve to be collected for the dump.

I saw a name written on the first page: Carolyn.

As Parce and I talked about the belongings we had come across in the rubble, we walked along the RV lot beside him, where the water had pushed homes yards away and into Hurricane Bay. There was other stuff that looked significant, too: A tax form documenting the sale of Christmas trees in December 1986. A photograph of a smiling man and woman, their names etched on the back.

As I left Fort Myers, the journal continued to tug at my curiosity.

I described it to my step-grandmother, Barbara Williams, the next day. A retired emergency-room physician from Atlanta, she immediately recognized its value. She had two similar journals of her own. Doctors and nurses filled notebooks like this with all the information they couldn’t look up on computers, such as symptoms for common conditions and numbers and directions to other local hospitals. The “Peripheral Brain,” they called it.

My grandmother kept hers — one black, the other navy blue — neatly preserved, stored safely in the back of her closet since she retired in 1997. Whoever owned this notebook had probably done the same for as many years.

“You need to find the owner,” she said.

I posted photos of the journal and a description of where I had found it on local Facebook groups. One page, Hurricane Ian’s Lost Treasures, specifically aims to reconnect people with their missing belongings, and it disseminated my post.

Meanwhile, I began searching for clues within the journal’s pages with help from The Washington Post’s dogged research team. A page toward the middle had a list of hospitals in the Kansas City area. I tried calling some of the numbers but found they were disconnected or belonged to different users. Carolyn could have worked in Missouri or Kansas before the advent of portable computers, retiring to Florida later in life with a treasured journal stowed away.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Post researcher Alice Crites checked in Missouri and Kansas for nonactive medical licenses of doctors named Carolyn and matched them with voter registrations for Fort Myers Beach. Nothing came back. She then ran voter registration records for Fort Myers Beach that also have a residential address in Missouri. The one result was not a doctor. I scanned Facebook and LinkedIn for likely profiles, but none appeared to match.

Still bent on finding Carolyn, I reached out to the Kansas State Nurses Association, which confirmed the first phone numbers marked in the journal probably belonged to Johnson County’s emergency response system but couldn’t tell me who the owner might be.

A month after I started my search, Carolyn is still a mystery — and her notebook, one more belonging adrift after the storm.

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