"There's this underlying feeling of anxiety," Stephanie Downing tells PEOPLE
Less than a year after Hurricane Ian struck Florida as a Category 4 storm, Mallie Critser is once again facing flood water in her family’s Fort Myers Beach home.
Last fall, Critser shared with PEOPLE the harrowing nightmare of watching as waves carried away her family's cars and her grandparents’ home while water continued to rise. This year, as Hurricane Idalia approached, her family took the hurricane warnings more seriously, she says. But they still didn’t evacuate.
"We've lived through the worst," says Critser, a 22-year-old assistant pastor at Beach Baptist Church.
Unlike during Ian, Lee County didn't issue evacuation orders for Idalia, which made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane near Keaton Beach in Florida's Big Bend area — about 320 miles north of Fort Myers Beach — around 8 a.m. Wednesday. But parts of Fort Myers Beach still faced flooding on Wednesday, bringing up hard memories for Critser.
"It was really rough," Critser says. "But we calmed ourselves down, and we're like, ‘Okay, it's not hitting us. We're okay.’"
As Critser was getting ready to go to sleep last night, her sister-in-law warned that high tide was coming.
"We were like, 'Nah, we'll be okay,'" Critser remembers. "She woke me up at about three o'clock and was like, 'I told you, high tide's here.' There's about six inches of water in our downstairs, and I don't even know how much was outside, but enough that a spare tire floated past."
She says it might be time to move.
"It seems like I'm the stupid one for living here," she says. "This makes me think, 'Why? Is it worth it? Is Florida really worth it?'"
Since Hurricane Ian, Critser says she's run a food pantry that serves 1,300 people a month.
"That got ruined as well," she says. "I’m trying not to freak out about all the work that has to be done, because if I start freaking out, I won’t stop."
She tried to protect the tent where she runs her food pantry by wrapping everything in tarps and pallets, but "it went underwater," says Critser, who is accepting donations to her food pantry here. "We've got a long time of putting that back together before we can reopen."
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Her plan today is to assess the damage.
"Tomorrow, we’ll get to work," she says. "We're supposed to have scattered thunderstorms all day today, so we're staying inside."
Critser is also thinking about others suffering from the latest storm, which has flooded streets; knocked out power to at least 250,000 customers in Florida, per poweroutage.us; and, according to the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, left countless structures "uninhabitable for several weeks or months" before it was downgraded to a Category 1 while moving through the southeast.
"I know what they're going through, and it physically hurts me to watch it," she says.
Watching the storm coverage, 70-year-old Stan Pence had to turn off the news because it reminded him of the frightening ordeal he survived. When Hurricane Ian struck, the retired chef’s first-floor condo filled with water. He escaped and clung to a palm tree for three hours.
He now lives about a mile from his daughter in Rotunda, Fla., in a second-story condo. They stayed in close contact, texting and talking all night.
"There's this underlying feeling of anxiety, and I think it's forever changed us," says his daughter, Stephanie Downing, a 33-year-old physical therapist. "My anxiety's a lot higher, and my husband, he's native Floridian, so he's like, 'Oh, we're fine. We're fine.' But I'm like, there's something that changed in me. My friend was saying, 'If we see our phones have no service again, I think I might have a panic attack.' Because we watched our friend's roofs being ripped off, and we had no cell phones to call anybody. I think everyone here in this area is just pretty damaged inside."
Her kids asked if their school would be destroyed and closed again. Last year, when Ian struck in September, her children didn’t return to school until Halloween.
"It was difficult last year trying to make the holidays normal when everyone has a blue tarped roof," she says. "It looked like a haunted house on every block."
At her house, the storm surge wasn’t bad on Wednesday. The streets flooded, but the water quickly receded, she says.
"The sun has come out a little bit," Downing tells PEOPLE. "I don't think we'll ever be ready for it ... It's just crazy looking back through my phone and looking at the pictures and feeling like, 'How was this even real?'"
On Sanibel Island, Maureen and Rich Vath have almost completed rebuilding their home after sharing their harrowing escape during Hurricane Ian with PEOPLE last fall.
The carpets were scheduled to go in next week. Last night, they put sandbags on the front door, hoping to stop the water from coming in and destroying everything again.
The water hasn't come too high, Maureen, 77, tells PEOPLE on Wednesday morning. But high tide was coming.
"We're not alone," she says. "I have many, many friends that live on Sanibel who've been going through this also, and they're just holding their breath."
She says if they have to rebuild again, they will.
"We've been through it once," she says. "We would just soldier on."
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