©Kelly Jones

In the Wake of Disaster

The odor was devastating—a mixture of salt water, gasoline, and other, unknown, chemicals. The intensity of the stench left Ashley Merrill and her husband lightheaded. “We had to take frequent breaks to get air,” she says. They had evacuated their Cape Coral, Florida, rental home during last September’s Hurricane Ian; when they returned to survey the damage, they found it had been inundated by storm surge. All the contents of the home were contaminated with rancid muck and would have to go. The home itself was uninhabitable. The family’s renters insurance would not cover the loss.

The photography community in her former hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, went into action when word got around that the Merrills had lost everything. A fellow photographer with a vacation home that had sustained minimal damage stepped up to offer its use to the Merrill family since no one would be staying there for two months. It was a saving grace that allowed Merrill’s husband to stay close to his work in the city of Cape Coral and her son to remain at his school, where he attends a program for children on the autism spectrum. But it wasn’t a permanent solution, and at press time Merrill was concerned about their next move, since rental and real estate prices have surged in the area. “We are feeling pretty invisible,” she says. Her home had drowned in ocean waves, and she was drowning in the aftermath.

©Ashley Merrill
The Merrill family's belongings were contaminated by storm surge and had to be set out in the front yard for trash pickup.
©Ashley Merrill

Merrill is a portrait photographer whose clients are beach vacationers. Before Hurricane Ian, many of her sessions took place on Florida’s North Captiva Island beaches. But today, surrounding islands including Captiva, Sanibel, and Fort Myers are reachable only to residents, the beaches are riddled with debris, and the water is too contaminated for swimming. The area is devoid of both clientele and shooting locations. When she evacuated her rental home, Merrill took her photography equipment with her. “I love what I do,” she says. “What I am missing is my routine.”  

Naples portrait photographer Kelly Jones, a colleague and friend of Merrill’s, did not experience significant personal loss due to the hurricane, she says, but feels for the significant damage to the community, including outdoor spaces she’d come to love that are either no longer accessible or are unrecognizable. “Essentially 90 percent of my locations have been taken away,” she says. “Those places become your studio, so that has been hard emotionally and, of course, also from a business standpoint. All of a sudden in this chaos you have to come up with a Plan B and you have to sell it.”

©Kelly Jones
Hurricane damage at Bonita Beach, Florida

Jones is part of a Southwest Florida women’s photography group, which became an important lifeline in the aftermath of the storm. The members checked on one another, sharing tips and experiences on everything from how to deal with client cancellations to the status of area locations. One member of the group set to work on a master list of all the area locations and their status, which she shared. She also made a master list showing the status of wedding locations, which was helpful to wedding photographers, who could recommend an alternate site to couples who’d lost their intended venue.

“The group as a whole has really come together to help each other,” says Jones. At press time, Jones was shifting her sessions to Marco Island. “It’s farther for me, but I will be able to work down there.”

©David L. Stevens
Hurricane damage in Fort Myers Beach, Florida
©David L. Stevens

For husband-and-wife photographer team Kelly and Kalina Schneider, who’d moved to Cape Coral, Florida, just two years prior, the hurricane was a new experience. When the storm suddenly changed direction, bending away from Tampa toward their area, they had to make a quick decision whether to evacuate or stay put. With the storm already brewing outside, they opted to stay home, spending the next seven and a half hours listening to 170-mile-per-hour wind gusts batter their one-story house.

With their cat in a carrier and their 17-year-old beagle at their side, they strategized that if the storm surge reached three to five feet, they and their pets could ride it out in the kitchen on the pony wall (a wall that extends only partway from floor to ceiling). They set up a ladder to a window, planning to climb out and onto the roof if the surge reached higher. They thought about using camera equipment cables to tie themselves together and to the roof, if necessary, to keep from being washed away. “It was terrifying,” says Kalina. At one point, she was sure the roof was about to blow off, so she grabbed the cat carrier and the dog, and ran to the other side of the house. “Those are experiences that I do not want to repeat.”

©Kelly Schneider Fine Art
Hurricane damage in Cape Coral, Florida

Somehow, though homes that were just 100 yards away were flooded with surge, theirs was spared. One of the ways the Schnieiders prepared as the storm was making its way to their coast was relocating camera gear, electronics, artwork, and important paper documents to the highest locations of the house, at least 10 feet off the ground. That included cameras, camera bags, lenses, memory cards, and hard drives. A lesson that Kelly has taken away from the event is to purchase large waterproof, fireproof cases for critical equipment. “We haphazardly put [our gear] into high places but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have washed away,” he says.

The other lesson they learned: evacuate. “Everyone has to make their own judgement. It’s hard to evacuate, and everyone has different circumstances, but I don’t think it’s worth it [to wait it out],” says Kalina. “Your life and your family are the most important thing, and everything else can be replaced.”

Have a plan for disasters, chimes in Kelly, whether that’s a hurricane, tornado, fire, or other emergency event. People always think, It won’t happen to us, he says. “But it did.” 

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.