The day after hundreds were rescued by the National Guard from dangerous floods at the Arden Villas complex near UCF, residents spent Friday wading back to their apartments through brown, waist-deep waters in an attempt to salvage what they left behind.
Using rubber boats and air mattresses as makeshift rafts, renters carefully floated their remaining possessions past submerged cars to the busy front entrance of Arden Villas, where vehicles waited to be loaded. Others hauled pets in their arms and suitcases on their shoulders as they walked in the areas where the water receded since Thursday.
“It’s like a completely surreal experience,” said Raven Carter, a 21-year-old resident. “… Imagine coming to start college, it’s your first year, and then your entire life is just gone — underwater.”
Historic flooding across Central Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian has forced hundreds to evacuate and shut down roadways, including Rouse Road in east Orange County near Arden Villas. At least three people in the region died during the storm, including a 72-year-old man in Deltona, a 67-year-old man in New Smyrna Beach and a 38-year-old man in Lake County.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said first responders used high-water vehicles Thursday to rescue 120 nursing home residents at Life Care Center of Orlando, which is adjacent to Arden Villas.
“That was a significant mission for our firefighters and the National Guard last night,” Demings said. “Let me just say to the National Guardsmen, thank you for your assistance to the community.”
Jeff Blostein, who was stuck inside a third-story apartment at Arden Villas with his 20-year-old daughter, said he was one of the hundreds rescued Thursday by the National Guard. Some residents debated staying but first responders told them there would be a good chance of losing power and plumbing, he said.
“I turned to my daughter and said, ‘This is our chance,’” the 51-year-old said.
The guardsmen helped Blostein, his daughter and her three pets into the truck along with other residents.
“[The guardsmen] were fantastic,” he said.
After they were dropped off at the front of the complex, Blostein said he booked a nearby hotel to stay the night while others were sent to shelters. He said his wife arrived from South Florida Friday to take them there until it’s safe for their daughter to return to Arden Villas and resume her classes at UCF.
UCF has announced it will reopen for classes Monday.
“[My daughter] had a hard time with it,” Blostein said. “She’s worried about the water level. … She’s worried about how she’s not going to be here for work. She’s worried about school work.”
Riley Boice, 19, said his first-floor apartment is completely flooded and smells like mold.
“My carpet is two inches of water,” he said.
He said he was disappointed after Arden Villas sent residents a notice of mandatory evacuation followed by a reminder to pay rent on Oct. 1. Boice said he has tried calling the main office and no one has answered.
“There’s been no communication,” Boice said of Arden Villas’ management. “There’s been no one taking any kind of standard here. It’s just really disappointing.”
Chris Daly, a spokesperson for Arden Villas, did not immediately answer why residents were asked to pay rent after being told to evacuate but said residents whose units were not damaged are welcome back.
“Overall damage still is being assessed and power outages are being reported throughout the area,” Daly said.
Arden Villas faced scrutiny last year after the death of its employee, 19-year-old Miya Marcano. Authorities say Marcano was killed by a maintenance worker at Arden Villas who used a master key to access her apartment and left her duct tape-bound body near the dilapidated Tymber Skan apartments.
After Arden Villas residents and the Marcano family demanded safety changes, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Miya’s Law, a bill that seeks to make apartments safer by requiring background checks on employees.
Carter, whose apartment was spared from the floods, said she spent her Friday morning trying to help other residents save their possessions.
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“You can see all of the furniture floating in their apartment,” she said.
Many people waded into the floods to take pictures of their submerged cars for their insurance, she said. The water is so deep that, at times, Carter said she stepped on top of cars.
“You can see where people … parked on top of the curb, in the bushes, in the freakin’ walkways to try and save their cars — and it still wasn’t enough,” she said.
Bailee Vassalotti said she was returning to Arden Villas Friday after evacuating with her two cats, Ahi Tuna and Sweet Potato, because the waters in front of her apartment building — previously at her knees — have dried up. A junior at UCF, she said she’s returning to school and work Monday.
“There are so many people that can’t go home affected by this,” she said. “Their house is literally underwater. How do you go to class? Your car? It’s 10 feet underwater — how do you get it?”
Staff writer Jeff Weiner contributed.