Hurricane Ian Leaves Behind a Staggering Scale of Damage in Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The extent of Hurricane Ian’s devastation became more apparent on Thursday as people across southwestern Florida, without electricity, drinking water or housing, began assessing the damage and outcomes that Governor Ron DeSantis said the recovery will last a year.

The scale of the wreckage is astounding, even for Florida residents who have survived and rebuilt after other powerful hurricanes. The storm tore up roads, toppled trees, collapsed downtown storefronts and raised cars, leaving ragged scars of dilapidated homes and businesses from buildings. coastal cities of Naples and Fort Myers to inland communities around Orlando.

Although state officials have not released the death toll at the end of the day, Mr. DeSantis said Thursday night that “we fully expect” to learn of the storm-related deaths when rescuers Households work through a backlog of 911 calls and scour the hardest hit neighborhoods. More than 500 people in Charlotte and Lee Counties, which were hardest hit, were rescued as of Thursday, the Florida Department of Emergency Management said; The small town of Fort Myers Beach, on a barrier island just off the coast, appears to have been devastated.

While Ian left Florida on Thursday afternoon as a tropical storm, South Carolinas were bracing for high winds and heavy rain as it quickly turned into a storm at sea; Forecasters say it could strengthen again before doubling back to the mainland on Friday.

Photographs taken from several parts of the state show homes crammed together in a mess or banged on what looks like toothpicks. Fishing boats and amusement cruisers were thrown to the ground as if they were bath toys. The street is a dangerous barricade of downed trees and downed power lines.

At North Fort Myers, where 84-year-old Marion Burkholder survived the storm by climbing into a dinghy inside a neighbor’s screened porch and emerging with rising water, Thursday has brought to the terrible news. Her carpet was soaked and her floor was covered with a dark brown liquid. Her refrigerator is on its side.

Marvis Long, 96, who lives nearby, said: “Everything is floating. “The water comes in like waves here.”

The mayor, sheriff and other officials surveying the damage have struggled to describe its scope. The sheriff in Volusia County, near Orlando on the state’s east coast, said via text message that the coastal county is seeing “unprecedented flooding.” Mr DeSantis said there had been “biblical” high tides on Sanibel Island, often a tourist paradise of sparkling beaches and mangroves southwest of Fort Myers.

“The damage done is historic,” Mr DeSantis told a news conference on Thursday. “We have never seen a flood like this. We have never seen such a big storm.”

On Fort Myers Beach, a laid-back stretch of land dotted with hotels, bars and restaurants that, for many Southwest Florida residents, which provided a cherished escape from the mainland, the storm dumped its waste Visit beloved landmarks, including the fishing pier and Times Square, the public gathering spot where sunsets are celebrated each night. Some island residents said they had not heard from friends who had weathered the storm there.

“Especially when you look at Fort Myers Beach, there are no words to describe it,” said Sheriff Carmine Marceno of Lee County said after taking a helicopter tour of his county, just north of where Hurricane Ian made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday with winds up to 155 mph .

Jared Moskowitz, a former Florida emergency management director who flew over the area on Thursday, said the causeway leading to nearby Sanibel Island had one section missing and one section collapsed. “Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island look like they will need 80% rebuild,” he estimates.

The storm dealt a heavy blow to the complex infrastructure efforts to assess damage – early estimates put insured damage could be as high as $40 billion – and to the barrier islands affected. hit hard, where homes and businesses are now piles of wood pulp and broken concrete. Cell service is unclear or non-existent along the coast, another painful obstacle to residents’ efforts to seek help or reach missing family members.

Julie Hittle, who lives in Texas and is anxiously awaiting an update from her brother, who fled a flooded apartment in Naples by crawling out a window and onto the top of a pickup truck, said: “You are powerless to help.

When fickle cell service returned on Thursday night, her brother Chip Aldridge, 56, recounted how he, his fiancée and dog Kobi, walked two miles through the storm and ended it. at a La Quinta inn, where they were staying. stay because their apartment is a pile of mold. Mr Aldridge lost everything to Hurricane Irma in 2017 and is now facing the prospect of starting anew.

“We are survivors,” Aldridge said in a phone interview. “Last night was shocking and exhausting. This morning, OK, what’s next? Tomorrow we go face to face reality”.

The economic damage of the storm in an area heavily dependent on tourism and recreation is just beginning to be felt. Universal Studios in Orlando has not announced when it will reopen, although Disney said its theme parks appear to have little structural damage and will begin reopening on Friday. On both the east and west coasts, the beachfront bars, boardwalks and piers that were bustling with tourists a week ago are now a muddy wasteland.

At least 2.6 million people remained without power as of Thursday, although Florida officials said there were 20,000 utility workers ready to start getting power back.

The storm cut sections of two bridges connecting mainland Florida to barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico and left some roads in ruins while others were littered with trees and power lines. Rescuers have arrived by air and sea to reach those who have not yet been evacuated.

Across the region on Thursday, people waded home and trudged up the muddy, debris-filled streets that had plagued waterways just a day earlier to see what, if anything, still alive.

In Port Charlotte, crossing a river where the storm made landfall, Teresa Madden and her husband slid in amphibious vehicles through thigh-deep brown water – recklessly encountering red ants, snakes and two Crocodiles are known to live in the lake at their home. community for people 55 and older.

Water has flooded most of the houses, but one house was destroyed by the wind, its roof unfurling to reveal the ruins of a dining room. There was still a clock on the wall, but almost everything else lay in tatters on the dry grass: flower pots, socks, a carnival glitter goblin.

Elsewhere in the complex, Sarah Walters, 41, wore flip-flops and cropped shorts to assess the damage to her mother’s home. It could have been even worse, she said. But she still could not reach her mother, who evacuated to her nurse’s house. Mrs. Walters experienced the storm at her home about a mile away, with her husband and stepdaughter braced against the front door for three hours to prevent it from blowing in.

“We just had to figure out how to fix things,” she said.

Those who decided not to evacuate describe difficult escapes through chest-high floodwaters. Some take kayaks or jet skis on the four-lane road. Some huddled on top of cars. Some had to flee to their second floor and watch couches and furniture floating all over their living room.

In Naples Park, Joe Lema, 76, and his wife, Joyce, 70, spent four hours trapped inside their home by the force and weight of rising water outside. Unable to open the door, they tried to break the expensive storm-affected windows, but to no avail. They called 911, but they were told it was too late.

“I said a lot of prayers,” Lema said on Thursday. They had been in the evacuation zone but didn’t say anything like this had happened since buying the house in 1986.

Chad Sulkes, thinking he was prepared for the worst, bought a generator, gas, food, and a portable air conditioner until the Ian high tide started to invade his home in the Park Naples, forcing him to flee into the storm.

“There are no items you can buy to prepare for that,” he said. “The only preparation is to leave.”

On Thursday, he returned to the house he rented on Seagull Drive and found it completely disorganized. His boat in the back canal sank. All his belongings and belongings were scattered, covered in mud. The floor was slick with petrol-stained mud.

Cities further inland and along the Atlantic Coast appear to have endured the storm’s fierce winds with less damage than the southwest coast where Ian first made landfall. But at times of the day, heavy rain prompted warnings from the National Weather Service for “life-threatening, widespread catastrophic flooding” in Central Florida.

At Avante, an assisted living facility in Orlando, rescuers weathered flooding to evacuate 100 of the facility’s residents, carrying some on stretchers as rain and wind swirled around them. Some hospitals and nursing homes are managing to run on generators, industry officials said, while patients from at least 16 hospitals and an additional 3,500 nursing home residents have been evacuated from the facilities. another in southwest Florida, industry officials said.

There are moments of surreal destruction mixed with the ordinary. The streets of downtown Fort Myers were flooded with plant debris and other debris from the rising Caloosahatchee River. But the water receded on Thursday afternoon and some restaurants were open and packed with people in bras, shorts and flip flops looking for something warm to eat.

Diane Dorsey, 57, and her family moved to Fort Myers in 2019 from Maryland, considering it a pre-retirement adventure, never having imagined the devastation a hurricane could bring. As the storm swept one river past the front of the house and another through the backyard, Mrs Dorsey ordered her daughter to pick up the family photo albums and go upstairs.

Although their home suffered no major damage, they were among Floridians wondering on Thursday whether they should pack up and never return instead of risking a repeat disaster. someday or not.

Florida’s southwest coast has been flooded with new residents since Hurricane Charley, the strongest hurricane many here remembers, hit in 2004.

“There is no state tax,” Ms. Dorsey said. “But my god.”

Her 18-year-old daughter, Angel Dorsey, says: “I prefer the snow.”

Jennifer Reed Reporting contributions from Fort Myers.

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