The water rushing into Melissa’s apartment complex during Hurricane Ian. Courtesy Melissa

Future homeowner Melissa’s life as she knew it was completely upended on Sept. 29, 2022.

That’s when Hurricane Ian plowed through Central Florida, causing unprecedented flooding and more than $200 million worth of damage in Orange County.

Melissa and her three boys were safe and dry in their apartment one minute, and 10 minutes later were standing in water up to their knees. The storm surge caused the lake in front of their building to converge with a nearby lake, creating one massive, fast-rising body of water.

She remembers her son waking her up around 3 a.m. shouting, “We’re gonna flood!” The water was about an inch from her door at that time and was unstoppable. She shut off the power and they fled outside and climbed the stairs to the second-floor units, where a neighbor let them into their apartment.

It all happened so fast. She said she didn’t think about her possessions, just the safety of her kids.

“It was just ‘Let’s get out,’” she said. “We left pretty much with just the clothes on our backs.”

In the morning, rescue workers tore down the concrete walls surrounding the Orlando apartment complex and evacuated residents via airboat.

She’s lived in Orlando her whole life and has never seen this kind of flooding. Most of her belongings, including family photos, her kids’ clothes, as well as her car, could not be salvaged. But she’s just thankful her family is safe.

A blue line indicates the high water mark a couple weeks after the storm. Photo by Jacques Durand Jr.

“It’s just stuff,” she said, “and at the end of the day, there’s always something better to hold on to until things get better.
“We still have each other.”

Lives disrupted

After that night, she and her kids, ages 16, 15, and 9, moved three times in 25 days. Her kids were in and out of their schools since they were moving around so much.

Finally, in late October, they were able to secure a room at an extended-stay hotel paid for with assistance from FEMA. “There’s a kitchen, so we don’t have to eat out every day,” she said.

But going from a cramped 2-bedroom apartment – she had been sharing a bedroom with her youngest – to a single-room hotel has been challenging to say the least. Because the repairs at her apartment are supposed to take 3-4 months, she won’t be able to move back in before her lease is up. In January, she was able to move in with a friend to be able to have a bit of a sense of normalcy.

“It’s stressful,” she said. “But it is what it is for now.”

Melissa in front of her former apartment complex a couple weeks after Hurricane Ian. Photo by Jacques Durand Jr.

Focused on homeownership

The single mother and Disney employee has remained remarkably positive through this horrifying ordeal. It’s partly because when the hurricane devastated them, she was only about six months away from a new start — closing on a new house with Habitat for Humanity Greater Orlando & Osceola County.

Knowing that a safe, secure, and spacious home with an affordable mortgage was just within reach has kept Melissa focused on creating a better life for her kids. Before the hurricane, they were moving every couple of years due to rising rents.

“Once I make it there, then I know I will have a place for my sons to sleep at night that’s not a hotel or place to place, and I know that at the end of the day things will be better,” she said.

Her journey to homeownership started about four years ago. She learned about Habitat’s homeownership program from a friend but didn’t have the minimum credit score needed to be accepted. She made tough choices over the years when it came to her finances.

An American flag planted in the ground in front of a flood-damaged van, a couple weeks after the storm. Photo by Jacques Durand Jr.

“When it was a choice between buying food or paying a bill, it was always the food for my kids,” she said.

She worked with a mentor through Habitat’s financial mentoring program to pay down debt, and within a few months, she reapplied and was approved to purchase a Habitat home.

She eagerly completed the required homeownership education classes and has loved volunteering on the build site alongside other future Habitat homeowners as part of her sweat equity hours.

“It feels rewarding to know that you are helping others who are in need when you yourself are also in need,” she said.

Her kids inspire her

Melissa said her kids are the reason behind everything she does and they keep her focused on her goal of homeownership.

“I want better for them,” she said. “I want to make sure they grow up to be happy adults and do well in life.”

Melissa playing with her sons on an alligator statue. Courtesy Melissa.

She hopes that her achieving homeownership will set a great example for them. She also has peace of mind that she can pass the home on to them someday.

“I will have a safe place for them for years to come. A place where they know that they can always stay.”

Her sons will each have their own rooms and a backyard to play in.

“Maybe we’ll put up a white picket fence, maybe have an above-ground pool,” she said.

And with a predictable monthly mortgage payment, she can save for their future and hopes to eventually plan a family vacation for the first time in many years.

“I want to take them to the mountains in a cabin for a getaway. It’s always been a dream,” she said.

She is scheduled to close on her home in April and can’t wait to sign the papers and get her keys.

“It’s going to feel great,” she said.

To anyone who’s experienced damages or loss from Hurricane Ian, she had this advice:

“Just keep moving forward,” she said. “There’s always a better place.”