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Florida resident secured paralyzed husband to hospital bed and gave him a life jacket

Renee Smith had to act quickly when Hurricane Ian battered down on her Punta Gorda home. But first, she protected her husband.
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A Florida woman used duct tape, tarpaulin, blankets, pillows and zip ties to secure her paralyzed husband to his hospital bed as Hurricane Ian battered their Punta Gorda home.

She also gave him a life jacket in case water flooded their home, some 24 miles north of Fort Myers.

“I don’t want him to die,” Renee Smith told NBC News’ Kerry Sanders Thursday in an emotional interview.

Renee Smith of Punta Gorda, Fla., joins Kerry Sanders following the destruction from Hurricane Ian
Renee Smith of Punta Gorda, Fla., joins Kerry Sanders following the destruction from Hurricane Ian as she describes how she kept her husband, who is paralyzed from the chest down and has prostate cancer, safe during the storm.MSNBC

The Florida couple had recently returned home from the hospital after Smith's husband, Christopher, had become paralyzed from the chest down because of prostate cancer that had metastasized to his spine.

He was scheduled to undergo radiation treatment on Wednesday, but it was canceled with the advent of the hurricane, which made landfall Wednesday afternoon and knocked out power to more than 2.6 million people across Florida.

“It was terrifying," she said.

"I took some blankets and I put some holes in them with scissors and I zip-tied them to the hospital bed and then I took a big tarpaulin that had grommets and I zip-tied that over it; and then I put pillows and plastic bags and I duct-taped them to the top of the sideboard and I put pillows between the sideboard and the window because I didn’t want him to get cut up to death if the window blew in, and then I put a life jacket on him so that if the water came in he wouldn’t drown, he would float.”

Image: Gusts from Hurricane Ian hit in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Sept. 28, 2022.
Gusts from Hurricane Ian hit in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Wednesday.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

After ensuring her husband's safety, Smith hid under the kitchen table and made a “fort with pillows and blankets.” 

Hurricane Ian was unlike anything they had ever experienced before. Smith lived through Hurricane Charley in 2004 and said Ian was much more powerful.

"Charley was less than an hour, the sun came out afterwards, there was no torrential rain," she said.

Ian, on the other hand, was "awful and long-lasting," with the back end of the hurricane as powerful as the front end, Smith added. She recalled hearing torrential rain but being too afraid to look through the windows into the darkness outside.

"It got dark in the middle of the day," she said. "It was almost like nighttime and when the rain started it was like snow. You couldn't see."

Smith remained downstairs in the kitchen, hiding in her fort and waiting for the storm to pass.

"You could hear the chimney getting ripped off the roof," she said. "I was afraid it was going to come in through the roof and crush me even though I was under the table."

Smith has had no time to rest, even though her arm is injured. She said she feels guilty about spending Wednesday hiding from the storm and called herself a “coward” for not being able to keep her husband company.

Image: Debris litters a street in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Sept. 29, 2022.
Debris litters a street in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Thursday after Hurricane Ian.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

Smith said she woke up to an unexpected but welcomed sight Thursday: a bald eagle standing on her last remaining tree.

Across Florida, millions of residents have been confronted with devastation and a long road to recovery. In Charlotte County, where the Smiths live, at least six people died following the hurricane, County Commissioner Christopher Constance told MSNBC.

At least nine hospitals in Lee County, where the hurricane first hit, were still without water as of Thursday, and thousands of residents remained trapped in their homes.

The island community of Sanibel has been cut off from the mainland after a large section of its causeway collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon from the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center in Punta Gorda, Gov. Ron DeSantis said there are ongoing efforts to safely evacuate residents cut off by the storm. He said the bridge will be rebuilt but noted “that’s not something that will happen overnight.”