1 elderly couple: A decision to stay put despite Irma floods

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The floodwaters rose faster than they could pile their things on top of the furniture: the family photos up onto the dresser, the rugs up onto the bed.

 

Her collection of hundreds of Beanie Babies was underwater before she could save them. Then went her 88-year-old husband’s model trucks and his favorite recliner where he likes to nap. They stuffed old records in the bathtub, but the water topped that, too, and poured right in.

“We lost everything we own, just about,” said Vera Dupuis, 82, as she dug through her soggy apartment in a senior citizens building that she and her husband Joseph have lived in for 26 years on the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville in Florida’s northeast corner. Their neighborhood was one of several in the city inundated by rushing water from the river and its tributaries as Hurricane Irma took its final lick at the state early Monday.

Dupuis said her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems, started crying Monday morning as the water poured in, swamping almost everything they had accumulated in 65 years of marriage.

“He said ‘look at all of our stuff.” I said, ‘As long as we’re OK, we won’t care about the stuff,’” she said. “But he’s 88; he wants to keep stuff like it is. It just can’t be like it was after a hurricane like this. It’s just never going to be the same.”

All over this city, residents woke up Tuesday to reckon with having their lives so suddenly upended. Their one relief: no one around them had been injured or killed in the chaos. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said it’s impossible to estimate yet how many homes were damaged or how many people rendered homeless.

Most had no electricity. Some streets were still rivers; others were cut off by splintered trees. Houses baking in the sun started to smell like mildew and sewage. For blocks and blocks, ruined furniture and soggy carpets were tossed into piles on the streets, as residents took a deep breath and started digging out and scrapping what they couldn’t save.

Around the corner, Deborah Smith discovered she’d forgotten to grab her box of family photos under the bed. Her daughter died a decade ago at 32 years old, and all the photos she had of her are likely ruined.

Down the street, Jen Gilreath lost her great-grandmother’s 100-year-old leather-bound Bible that she forgot to grab off the bookcase as the water rushed in. She hasn’t checked it yet to see how bad it is; for right now, she doesn’t want to know.

“It’s devastating, everything’s gone,” said Gilreath, a 33-year-old bartender. Their rented house is uninhabitable; their flooded Ford Explorer won’t start.

She and her boyfriend, Cameron Brainard, shrugged at each other, in confusion and exasperation. The list of tasks before them seems almost too long to comprehend: find an apartment and the money to secure it; save what they can and scrap the rest; buy a new car and new furniture.

“We have to find a place to go now,” Brainard said, stunned to be walking away without knowing where he might sleep tonight. “We have no place to go.”

The Dupuis — and many of their elderly neighbors — are adamant about staying in their building, though it now stands as an island amid the flood. Water stands knee deep on all the roads to them. There is no power, and stagnant water still sloshes around inside.

Defiant, they are moving into an empty apartment on the second floor, to sleep on cots. Their son, also named Joseph, helped them move what little they could save up the stairs because the elevator doesn’t work. The son will stay with them until the power returns. They’ll just open the window to survive the heat, Vera Dupuis said, and eat whatever in the cabinets didn’t float away in the flood.

Emergency workers have tried to coax the couple out; the mayor has warned that it’s dangerous to stay inside homes in the flood zones. The water, though receding, is filled with chemicals and sewage that might spread disease. The power might be out for days longer, as the temperature is expected to climb toward 90 degrees.

“He says he ain’t leaving this building; we tried talking to him but he said he’s not leaving. So I’m not going to leave him by himself,” said Vera Dupuis of her husband, who retired from the Navy, then again from a gas company. “I think we’ll be all right, I think we’ll be fine. If you want to, you can, so we will.”

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