Family rebuilds life in new state after losing nearly everything in Hurricane Ian

As the southwestern coast of Florida starts to rebuild following Hurricane Ian, one family that survived the deadly storm is rebuilding their lives over 500 miles north.

Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa said she and her husband Max rented a car near Fort Myers Beach just a few days after the hurricane, which flooded their own SUV.

The couple filled the rental car with as many of their belongings as they could, put their 2-year-old and 2-month-old sons in their car seats and drove north to South Carolina, where they are staying in a relative's home.

"We kind of said, you know, we have nothing, let's take it as an opportunity to get out of here," Lopez-Figueroa told "Good Morning America." "Even if we wanted to rent, there's nothing there to do so with. We had no vehicle so my husband can't make his way to his job."

She added, "You want stability for your family, and that is not stability."

Lopez-Figueroa, a stay-at-home mom, said she had lived in the Fort Myers Beach area for the past 12 years. Her husband, a code inspector, is a Fort Myers native.

The couple began renting a second-story condo in a building right off Fort Myers Beach just a few months ago, just before welcoming their youngest son Aziel, according to Lopez-Figueroa.

PHOTO: Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa's 2-year-old son watches Hurricane Ian from the family's Fort Myers Beach, Florida, apartment. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)
PHOTO: Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa's 2-year-old son watches Hurricane Ian from the family's Fort Myers Beach, Florida, apartment. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)

She said they decided to stay in their condo during the hurricane because the storm's early track looked like it would strike Tampa, and they were in a high enough building to not be concerned about flooding.

As the path of the storm went south towards Fort Myers, Lopez-Figueroa said she and her husband feared they would get stuck on the highway if they tried to evacuate.

"The roads were so blocked that you would have been sitting ducks in the middle of a hurricane on a highway in traffic," said Lopez-Figueroa. "And I think that was the case for a lot of people."

Describing the decisions people made not to evacuate the area, she added, "People weren't willfully stupid about their decisions. People wanted to get out and they couldn't and you have to assess what is the best decision for you during this storm."

Lee County, which includes Fort Myers Beach, did not mandate evacuations until the day before Ian, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm the afternoon of Sept. 28, leveled much of its coastline.

PHOTO: Damaged homes and debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
PHOTO: Damaged homes and debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

At least 123 people in Florida have died due to Hurricane Ian, according to local officials, and the death toll continues to climb.

In the week since the storm, both emergency officials and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been pressed about the evacuation timeline and whether different choices could have lessened the casualties. The governor and others, including the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have stressed that the decision was made a local level but defended the evacuation timing, citing uncertainty about Ian's path.

The National Hurricane Center forecasted on Sept. 25 that Ian could bring a potential storm surge between 4 and 7 feet along Florida's southwestern coast from Englewood to Bonita Beach -- covering the entirety of Lee County's coast.

MORE: Neighbors band together to help after Hurricane Ian

Lopez-Figueroa said she felt her family would be safe in their second-story condo, until they watched the flood waters quickly rise.

"We were told that probably the most that we would get would be about two feet in the garage. That was not the case," she said. "The garage was completely flooded so everybody's cars were completely totaled. The water came up to almost the second floor."

PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)
PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)

As the water rose, Lopez-Figueroa and her husband grabbed their two children, crossed an outdoor hallway and ran upstairs to a neighbors' third-story unit in the middle of the storm.

"That was scary because the outdoor ceiling area had already started flying around, the water was already way high and the wind," she said. "I had the infant, my husband had the toddler, and I was just really worried that something was going to come and fly and hit one of us."

Once inside the condo, with neighbors they had just met the day before, Lopez-Figueroa said they heard the unforgettable sound of the wind whipping outside and objects pounding up against the condo's storm shutters.

At one point, part of one side of the condo building ripped off, according to Lopez-Figueroa, who said her condo and the condo to which she and her family evacuated were not affected.

PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)
PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)

With wind speeds of 150 mph, Ian tied the record for the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to strike the United States, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

"I've never heard anything like it," she said. "I think at this point we're just still trying to process everything that we went through."

PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)
PHOTO: The apartment building where Max and Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa lived in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Ian. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)

Lopez-Figueroa said her 2-month-old son slept on and off through the storm, while she and her husband tried to keep thing as calm as possible for their 2-year-old son Yuriel.

MORE: Woman uses social media to help find mom whose home flooded in Hurricane Ian

She said that was a difficult task, given what they were seeing out the window.

"He started pointing at everything and saying, 'Broken, mama, broken,' " Lopez-Figueroa said. "We saw boats floating down the main road, San Carlos Boulevard, where you normally see cars go. It was just nuts. Absolutely nuts."

PHOTO: Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa's 2-year-old son watches Hurricane Ian from the family's Fort Myers Beach, Florida, apartment. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)
PHOTO: Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa's 2-year-old son watches Hurricane Ian from the family's Fort Myers Beach, Florida, apartment. (Courtesy of Zhenia Lopez-Figueroa)

Lopez-Figueroa said wanting to provide stability for her two sons was her motivation to leave the Fort Myers area and not wait to rebuild their lives there. She plans to continue to care for her sons at home full-time, while her husband is hopeful he can relocate with his same employer.

She said she and her husband feel lucky to have a roof over their heads and a new start in a new state.

"I know that desperate feeling of wanting to be able to get out of this destruction zone and not see it every day," she said. "I can't imagine having to restart and wanting out and not being able to [leave] -- it's a very kind of hopeless feeling."

Family rebuilds life in new state after losing nearly everything in Hurricane Ian originally appeared on goodmorningamerica.com