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As Tiffany McQuaid watched Hurricane Ian batter her hometown of Naples, Florida, Wednesday, she feared the worst.
“I just kept thinking I’m going to lose everything,” McQuaid told Inman during a Thursday phone call. “I’m going to lose my whole office. It was horrific.”
McQuaid is the founder and broker-owner of McQuaid and Company, a brokerage based in Naples — which happens to sit right in the crosshairs of the storm as it bore down on the Sunshine State. The hurricane ultimately made landfall Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm, the second-most severe classification available. Winds blew at 150 miles an hour and a tsunami-like storm surge flooded the Fort Meyers region, of which Naples is a part.
“There were cars floating downtown, furniture floating down the street. It’s insane,” McQuaid said. “I’m just so blown away I don’t even know.”
McQuaid’s home did not flood. But her office — which houses the brokerage she has spent years building — sits in downtown Naples, where the storm was causing significant havoc Wednesday. And so on Thursday morning she trekked to the office, driving over debris and securing permission to go through a police barricade. Finally, she reached her office, “expecting to see water everywhere.”
But instead, the flood stopped just feet from the door.
“There were tears dripping down my face to see that the water somehow didn’t get in,” she said. “Something was watching over me because I was so afraid I lost everything last night.”
Though McQuaid’s office was spared, by Thursday afternoon it was apparent that the devastation in western Florida was widespread. Images show entire neighborhoods effectively wiped out, with homes clustered together in piles like discarded shoeboxes. Boats sat far inshore, a tangle of dented hulls and tilting masts that came to rest on top of houses.
— Sean Breslin (@Sean_Breslin) September 29, 2022
Other images show homes and cars almost entirely submerged, only their roofs peaking out of the water like tiny islands. And as of late Thursday, 2.6 million homes in Florida were without power, according to local media and government reports.
The storm was also still chugging northward late Thursday. Though its intensity had dipped, more damage still was expected along the East Coast.
Though the exact cost of the damage could take months or longer to assess, Chuck Watson — founder of analytics firm Enki Research — told Bloomberg earlier this week that the price tag could rise as high as $70 billion. On Wednesday, insurance analytics firm Artemis issued a report indicating losses for the insurance industry could rise above $20 billion.
The situation is further exacerbated by a complicated insurance landscape in Florida. On Thursday, Mark Friedlander — communications director at the Insurance Information Institute — told the Associated Press that “Florida’s property insurance market was the most volatile in the U.S. before Hurricane Ian formed and will most likely become even more unstable in the wake of the storm.”
Other reports this week have indicated that most people in the storm’s path actually lack flood insurance.
Asked about the insurance situation in her region, McQuaid said she anticipates a difficult road ahead.
“I believe it will be a challenge for coverage,” she said.
Also unclear Thursday was how many lives might have been lost. Though large swaths of the region were cut off — for instance, McQuaid said a nearby island was inaccessible because the causeway connecting it to the mainland “was missing a big chunk” — President Biden on Thursday said there may have been a “substantial loss of life” and that Ian may prove to be the deadliest hurricane in the history of Florida.
Images and video shared on social media during the height of the storm offer clues as to why that might be. One video, posted to Instagram by a local architecture firm, showed rain, wind and storm battering an area in Fort Meyers so badly that buildings had been knocked off their foundations.
Streets look like rivers in many images from the storm, and a number of Floridians shared images of water rushing inside their homes, in some cases with waves lapping at their interior stairs.
Reporter @TaylorWirtzWINK just took this video. 📍Vanderbilt Beach area #HurricanIan @winknews @MattDevittWINK @DylanFedericoWX @WXRules @AmandaLaurenWx @NashWX @julianamwx @KCShermanWx pic.twitter.com/t79cX965HD
— Nicole Gabe (@NicoleGabeTV) September 28, 2022
Another video shows a flooded corridor. A second later, the door leading to the exterior explodes open as a wave slams into it from the outside.
— CycloforumsPR (@CycloforumsPR) September 28, 2022
Still another post on social media shows a man swimming in neck-deep water that had filled the interior of his home.
— Chris Bouzakis (@ChrisBouzakis) September 28, 2022
Though McQuaid’s home and business were spared, listings her company handles were not all so lucky. She told Inman that her firm handles a high-end rental home in the area that was completely flooded.
“The water level was above the front door,” she said. “It was massive water intrusion. The water is clear to the top of the 10-foot front door. The entire first level was flooded. I don’t know if it rose above that.”
Making matters worse, the home had just undergone an extensive and expensive renovation.
As of Thursday afternoon, McQuaid and her agents were still trying to reach their clients to assess damages and offer assistance. But McQuaid said there is no electricity in the region, and roads are blocked — meaning it will take time to even find out how bad things got.
McQuaid and her agents aren’t the only real estate professionals stepping up amid the chaos. In a call with Inman Thursday, Alexia Rodriguez — CEO of Keller Williams‘ charitable giving arm KW Cares — said her team is currently preparing to send 500 generators to Florida. The generators should be en route by Thursday night or Friday morning.
“We’re standing up two command centers in the area,” she said, “working in partnership with churches who will be hosting us in those areas.”
Rodriguez and her team were also working Thursday to figure out how many Keller Williams personnel might have been impacted by the storm. She said there are at least 30 Keller Williams’ offices in affected areas, and possibly many more. KW Cares is designed to help the personnel from those offices, as well as both their immediate and extended families — meaning the program can potentially assist large numbers of people.
Additionally, Rodriguez said KW Cares is preparing to issue emergency grants of up to $5,000 to Keller Williams’ agents and their families. The money is meant to assist with lodging, food and other necessities.
Anywhere, the parent of big names, such as Coldwell Banker and Better Homes and Gardens, also began deploying a disaster response Thursday. In an internal note Thursday, which was shared with Inman, the company announced that both its Anywhere Gives charitable arm and Anywhere Disaster Relief Fund were prepared to offer support to impacted personnel.
Anywhere also said that many members of the company have asked how to help, and in response, the company will be matching donations to the disaster relief fund up to $50,000. Impacted Anywhere employees residing in any of nine Florida counties that were under disaster declarations are eligible for financial assistance from the company.
Though the extent of the damage remains to be seen — including in regions the storm hasn’t reached yet — McQuaid ultimately framed such situations as opportunities for real estate professionals to show how they can be assets to the community. In the lead up to the storm, McQuaid explained, she and her agents went around to the properties of clients — many of whom were out of state — to prepare them. They brought in trash cans, removed signs and made sure nothing could blow away.
And that process is now continuing as they figure out how to help their clients pick up the pieces.
“The role that we play is to be good stewards,” McQuaid said. “This is the time when our responsibility becomes not just about the listing or the buyer, but about doing whatever you can to make people feel comfortable and know that you’re on their side. You can help guide them through and give peace in this time of uncertainty. That’s when our job really becomes critical.”
Update: This post was updated after publication with information about the storm’s status late Thursday and it’s continued movement.