Hurricane Ian death toll rises in Southwest Florida, as power, other challenges persist

Lee County's death toll from Hurricane Ian hit 35 Saturday, according to Sheriff Carmine Marceno.

"We've had over 600 to 700 rescues of people who are in need during this difficult time, with about 35 deaths," Marceno said Saturday, adding that next of kin need to be notified. "I want to release the information of the deceased as soon as I can, but there is a process."

For Collier County, state officials said they're evaluating the causes of eight deaths there.

In the agonizing aftermath of Ian, getting in and out of Southwest Florida also has become increasingly difficult by the day, not easier. Not by a long shot.

Saturday supplies update: What's open and where to get what you need after Ian

Previously: Devastation from Ian worse than Charley, Sanibel police chief says

Hurricane Ian shuts down 12 miles of I-75 in North Port and Venice

The horrific monster trampled the region on Wednesday. Now finally gone, it cruelly left behind new problems that evolved Saturday, three days later.

A suddenly rising Myakka River led to the shutting down of 12 miles of I-75 in North Port and Venice. And authorities said they were worried the river would reach a record level Saturday.

"Myakka River under Interstate 75 has risen and impacted the interstate, no longer making it safely passable for motorists," the Charlotte County emergency office said in a statement. "Due to the rising water, I-75 in both directions is now closed from mile marker 179 (North Port / Toledo Blade Boulevard) to mile marker 191" at Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice.

Related: I-75 closed in south Sarasota County because of flooding brought by Ian

Scene from U.S. 41 in East Naples of the floods from Hurricane Ian.
Scene from U.S. 41 in East Naples of the floods from Hurricane Ian.

The detours will remain until the water recedes, the state Department of Transportation said, and that may not be for several days.

"Motorists planning on traveling to Southwest Florida on I-75 should seek an alternative route," DOT said. "Major delays are expected."

The Myakka and Peace River drainage basins, with all that water shoved inland during Ian and its massive rainfall, are draining. The Myakka River at Myakka State Park was expected to crest at 12.7 feet Saturday, more than two feet above major flood stage, said Rodney Wynn, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

“It’s going to be at flood (stage) for at least another five days,” Wynn said Friday night. “As far as our forecast goes — Wednesday morning it’s still at moderate flood.”

A total of 21.45 inches of rainfall was recorded in North Port over the three-day period that included the impact of Hurricane Ian, according to hydrological data from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

For motorists traveling north on I-75, authorities were setting up a detour at Palm Beach Boulevard exit 141 in Fort Myers to route east on State Road 80 and eventually U.S. 27 and U.S. 98.

'They've got to do something'

The challenge for this region is that other key routes, many of them north-south, such as Tamiami Trail, are having huge complications.

Inspectors have been surveying bridges, and Friday afternoon, the U.S. 41 spans over the Peace River in Charlotte were shut down, leading to all lanes on the highway being closed from Kings Highway in Port Charlotte to Marion Avenue in Punta Gorda.

"The closure is a precautionary measure due to potentially dangerous conditions," said Charlotte emergency officials, who at the time directed motorists to I-75 and had no timeline on reopening.

Nearby, multiple spots are blocked off on State Road 776, Englewood's lifeline.

And if you're trying to go through the spine of the state as an alternative or to get to Orlando and points beyond, it doesn't get much smoother.

Other passages are obstructed including State Road 17 in DeSoto and Hardee counties, State Road 64 in Hardee and U.S. 98 in Polk County, state officials said Saturday.

Not that it's easy to just go down the street in Southwest Florida, where Florida National Guard engineering resources have been deployed to assist with route clearance.

Links between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach are non-existent. And with extensive causeway and bridge damage, Sanibel and Pine Island residents won't be able to leave their ravaged havens in cars for the foreseeable future.

“They’ve got to do something,” former Greater Pine Island Civic Association President Scott Wilkinson said, hoping a temporary bridge can be constructed soon for the 10,000 permanent residents there. “They can’t just leave us here.”

'Very difficult time' as it will take weeks to assess Bonita damage

Hurricane Ian: Dangerous storm roars along Southwest Florida shores

It was only by boat that Jay Johnson could reach Bert's Bar & Grill in Matlacha, his family’s possession the past two decades. Except it was not among the surviving eateries, and no longer there when he motored up, smashed to pieces in the Old Florida fishing village. Only iconic colorfully painted pilings remain.

"It had been in our family for 23 years, and it’s just gone," Johnson said. "It’s going to be a while before we get out of this. We’ve lost a part of history, but now we have the opportunity to build the next history. We get to put our fingerprints on what hopefully becomes another historic building that lasts 100 years and becomes the heart and heartbeat of the community. That’s what Bert’s really was.”

And while boats that weren't destroyed by Ian are becoming available, some other modes aren't.

When will FGCU and other institutions open? 

The FAA said the expected reopening of Southwest Florida International will be noon Friday, meaning the region will have been without its critical economic engine for 10 days.

Lack of power, damage and other hurdles remained for other key institutions as well.

Florida Gulf Coast University plans to reopen by Oct. 10. Florida SouthWestern State College has the same goal and plans to extend the schedule for its fall term by about a week at this point.

"FSW facilities continues to work with vendors on campus repairs and are monitoring power, water and sewer conditions to determine return to campuses. FSW student affairs is assessing our residence hall to determine when student move-in is possible,"  FSW said in a statement. "At this time, fall term classes will be extended through Dec. 10 to include final exams. (These) dates may need to be adjusted based on conditions."

Lee County schools has called off classes for next week.

"Based on our most recent assessments of schools, as well as no power or water, we have made the decision to close all schools and district offices next week," the district said in a statement. "Reopening our schools is one of our top priorities. We will do so in a manner that is sensible and effective."

Collier County educators were wanting to open Monday, but a final decision "will be announced no later than 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 2," according to a statement Saturday.

Humane Society Naples will remain closed for adoptions through Oct. 4 while the Gulfshore Playhouse announced the cancellation Saturday of its 26 Miles performances that had been slated to begin Oct. 13. Curtains now won't be raised for a first show of the season until Nov. 12.

At the same time, The Baker Theatre and Education Center currently under construction received some damage in Hurricane Ian, with part of one wall collapsing, according to Kristen Coury, Gulfshore's producing artistic director. The construction site and support structures sustained some flooding and much of the dirt was washed away in the storm surge.

“Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this hurricane,” Coury said Saturday afternoon. “For all at Gulfshore Playhouse, we are safe and dry. However, Gilbane, our construction managers, haven’t been able to conclusively determine the impact of Hurricane Ian on the new building yet. (There) will need to be some re-construction."

Collier County was still trying to get its lights to shine bright for nearly half of its population.

About 104,000 customers or 40% of Collier didn't have electricity Saturday afternoon.

"This storm produced significant damage to our grid," Collier County Commissioner Rick LoCastro said. "There are over 1,350 utility linemen working in our county to restore power."

And good luck using your phone.

“[Cell service] is okay in some places, and others not available at all,” Collier County Manager Amy Patterson said.

But in many respects, its situation was better than its northern neighbor.

Damage from Hurricane Ian can be seen on Sanibel and St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.
Damage from Hurricane Ian can be seen on Sanibel and St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

About 73% of Lee remained without power

About 73% of Lee  — 345,017 customers — remained without power.

Cape Coral experienced a 100% power outage, and at 7 a.m. Saturday began "the process of restoring power to the city,” Fire Chief Ryan Lamb said. “We are continuing to work with over 30 vendors and city crew to continue that first push effort to get the debris cleared out of the roadways and work with damage assessment on not only our buildings but our power grid."

Crews have cleared approximately 3,000 lane miles of major roadways and local streets throughout the Cape.

“We know we have a lot of resources,” Mayor John Gunter said. “This isn’t going to go away in a day. This is going to be several weeks.”

And here's one reason it's going to take awhile: The National Weather Service has not been able to access all of its official access points, but unofficially the highest winds recorded in Cape Coral so far were 140 mph at 5:20 p.m. Wednesday, the service's Wynn said.

The top gust recorded by an NWS station was 155 miles per hour, and that burst hit the Punta Gorda Airport. Other airport data was not available as of Friday.

"It took the data but it's not transmitting," said Nicole Carlisle, a NWS meteorologist based in Ruskin. "And we’re still working on gather all the information because some of the sensors down there didn’t last."

In another Southwest Florida community, winds topped out at 112 miles per hour at Pelican Bay before some gauges stopped recording data due to power outages and other factors.

"We have gust data, but there was several above hurricane strength," said Sammy Hadi, a meteorologist with the NWS office that covers the Naples area. "I wouldn't be surprised if, looking back it is higher because some of the gauges didn't finish reporting and some stopped at 11:20 a.m."

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes for the USA TODAY NETWORK, which supplemented this report through the efforts of Dave Osborn, Mark H. Bickel, Cindy McCurry-Ross, Chad Gillis, Harriet Howard Heithaus, Samantha Neely, Luis Zambrano, Liz Freeman, Nikki RossJohn Kennedy, Sergio Bustos, Hannah Morse, Jeff Burlew, Chris Kenning, Earle Kimel, Laura Layden, Kate Cimini, Janine Zeitlin and others. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Ian killed at least 35 as wind hit as high as 140 mph: new SW FL data