Fort Myers Beach man survives storm and saves neighbors

Note to readers: This is the story of a man who survived Hurricane Ian. Many others have had similar experiences. There have been more than 50 confirmed deaths in Lee County as of October 7. Officials expect the death toll to continue to rise.

Fort Myers Beach resident Matt Oakley will never forget the conversation he had with his neighbor across the street on the afternoon of September 28th.

They were frantically texting and calling each other.

NEIGHBOR: “What are we doing?”

MAST: “Get up on the (kitchen) counters and stay there.”

Outside, Matt could no longer see his street. He saw a river. Storm surge from Hurricane Ian, a powerful Category 4 storm, was building rapidly.

A few minutes passed. Matt was back on his phone. His neighbor and his neighbor’s wife needed his help.

NEIGHBOR: “We cannot stay here. We have to go.

MAST: “Go to the attic.”

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Matt kept staring out the second-story window of his Sterling Avenue home, a home he and his wife Trish had to rebuild after Hurricane Irma in 2017. The water kept rising.

And amount.

And amount.

A few minutes later, Matt saw his Dodge Caravan being swept away by floodwaters. It disappeared in a few seconds, swallowed by the breaking wave.

Matt looked at his wife, Trish.

“It’s not good,” he said.

NEIGHBOR: (now in the attic) “The water touches our feet.”

MAST: “Use your hands, your feet, your nails, whatever it takes and you get through that roof. Knock through the roof!”

The neighbor, whom Matt estimated to be 6 feet tall, was struggling. His head hit the cross beams of the attic. The water level was rising.

MAST: “Kick through the roof!”

There was a silence. Matt was looking out the window again. His eyes were fixed on his neighbour’s roof.

Expect. Hoping. Pray.

“And then…I looked outside…I saw him…he was there,” Matt said. “He broke through the roof. He kicked him out. He was waving at me.”

Maybe he didn’t realize it at the time, but Matt had just saved two people from drowning.

The names of his neighbors are Thomas and Sheri.

They come from Wisconsin. It was their first hurricane.

Matt does not know their surnames.

Matt Oakley, left, and his wife Trish in happier times.  This photo was taken two years ago while vacationing in Bar Harbor, Maine.  Matt and Trish were in Fort Myers Beach when Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida on September 28, 2022.

Trying to save their home now

At the top of Matt Oakley’s LinkedIn page is a photo of him standing in front of the iconic Augusta National Golf Club clubhouse, home of the prestigious Masters golf tournament.

Directly below this photo, where it says “about”, Matt wrote:

“A dedicated, energetic and hardworking expert in the game of golf and the business of golf.”

After what happened on September 28, he can add two more accomplishments to his resume:

Survivor and Saviour.

“It was the most awful day of my life,” Matt said Thursday night from his beloved Fort Myers Beach home. He spoke of the ordeal he and his wife survived, providing the heartbreaking details of the same mobile phone he used to rescue his neighbours.

Other neighbors weren’t so lucky.

“At least four people on this street are dead,” Matt said.

Not far from where Matt and Trish Oakley live on Fort Myers Beach is the Mid-Island Laundry and Car Wash.  After the storm, Matt took this photo of the washing machines and dryers that were pushed out of the building by the storm surge.

Thursday was day 8, AI (after Ian). The end of another long day for Matt and Trish, who are doing mitigation work on their two-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Estero Boulevard. It sits along a canal in the middle of the island, not too far from Estero Bay and not far from the Mid-Island laundry and car wash.

The scene is now apocalyptic. There are washers and dryers scattered across the landscape like large boulders.

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“No movie compares,” Matt said.

Matt and Trish try to save their house. Still.

“It’s our lifelong dream – to live on the beach,” Matt said. “It’s our home.”

Matt is not a carpenter or a contractor or a drywall expert for that matter. Far from there. The 54-year-old from Bloomington, Minnesota is the PGA’s very proud Chief Golf Professional at Worthington Country Club in Bonita Springs.

“I’ve been at Worthington for two years and I’m very lucky,” Matt said. “I absolutely loved the experience. It’s an amazing place.”

For now, instead of a golf club in his hands, he has two crowbars and a hammer. He destroyed the drywall – “up to the stud” – and ripped out the insulation. Objects on the first floor of the house have been moved. Four inches of mud on the tiled floors finally disappeared.

Stay or go?

For Matt, Trish and many others living along the coast, it wasn’t clear what direction the storm would take until it was too late.

Trish’s mother lives in Cape Coral with her Labradoodle. Matt and Trish have two dogs of their own: Toby, a 14-year-old Boarder Collie, and Brownie, a 12-year-old Sheltie. There was a lot to do to prepare, including putting Matt’s mother-in-law on a plane to Nashville where Trish’s brother lives.

As Ian approached, they had Hurricane Irma in mind. Matt and Trish evacuated for this storm and couldn’t return to the island “for a long time”.

“Irma taught us a lot,” Matt said. “We were away from home for 15 months. We had to bring it down.”

The reconstruction included a confident warranty from the contractor. Their rebuilt home was built to code for hurricanes. It was structurally strong for the wind. But the push Ian brought with her was a different challenge.

An RV parked on the beach in Fort Myers was destroyed by Hurricane Ian on September 28, 2022.

“The thing will take whatever you can give it,” Matt recalled, telling him the contractor.

“He said, ‘You’ve got hurricane-proof windows and doors and 14 feet above the ground, you can take whatever the thing can give you.

“We thought about what we’ve been through with other storms and we thought we’d get two or three feet of storm surge and ease it,” Matt said.

It was a psychological showdown for them. Stay or evacuate.

The decision was made. Matt and Trish would pull through and hope for the best.

It didn’t take long for Matt to wonder if they had made a wise decision.

“All of a sudden we had water on the windows,” Matt said. “I was watching boats, jet skis and cars go by. Our street was acting like a river. There were cars and pieces of houses floating around.”

Then Matt was able to see what happens when a hurricane’s eyewall passes overhead.

“All the water just got pushed back,” he said. “The water came out almost as fast as it came in.”

It was temporary. He knew it. The water started to come back. This time in another direction. All the debris that had already floated by floated again.

No film is comparable.

Fortunately, the water level never reached the second floor of the house. But it was close. He was as high as the last step of the stairs leading to the second floor.

Inside, Matt and Trish began to devise their own escape plan, staring at the ceiling.

“We had one step left,” he said. “We thought we were going to break through the roof. It didn’t seem to want to stop. We were stacking chairs.”

And then it stopped.

This is a photo taken October 6, 2022 on the second floor of Matt and Trish Oakley's home in Fort Myers Beach.  The storm surge from Hurricane Ian on September 28, 2022 had reached the height of the last step leading to the second floor.

Matt enjoys being a PGA golf professional. He is actively involved in the South Florida PGA Section, currently holding the title of Vice President of the Southwest Florida Section. There are 41 chapters across the country. Geoff Lofstead is the executive director of the South Florida Chapter.

Every PGA member pays dues which help support an emergency fund for times like these. Matt said Lofstead is working to free up some of those funds to help him and other golf professionals who have been affected.

“Giving back to the PGA is my goal and my mission at this point in my career,” Matt said, indicating he tends not to let what happened to him stop him from doing it and being a leader. of the PGA in Southwest Florida.

He said Worthington Country Club members and management support him and Trish unceasingly.

“They give me time to do it. There’s a unit on the property and they allow us to stay there,” Matt said.

Ironically, Worthington was open to play again on October 2. Matt said the biggest damage was the uprooting of 25 to 30 trees. He said Superintendent David Forrey and his team did an exceptional job clearing the course for play.

Matt said a lot has changed in a short time in Fort Myers Beach. What he noticed the most was the attention and care the residents give to each other. He was interrupted several times during this interview by people inquiring about him and Trish.

It is very visible what happened.

“Before the storm, it was, you know, ‘I live in my cage and you live in yours,'” Matt said. “This storm has been traumatic and horrible. Life has changed. It’s more communal. I would say it’s like how we lived generations ago. People always ask us if we need anything . We’re going back to our roots as humans.”

On the evening of the storm, Matt said he and Trish “made their way and sailed to the beach.”

When they reached the water, they knelt down. They prayed.

“We said thank you.”

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