The full scale of the disaster unleashed by Hurricane Ian on Florida began to emerge Thursday after catastrophic flooding trapped residents in their homes, destroyed bridges, and other critical infrastructure, and left over 2 million people without power.
The fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. when measured by wind speed, Ian tore into the Southwest Florida coast on Wednesday afternoon with violent gales, an epic storm surge, and as much as a foot of rain dropped over some areas.
At first light on Thursday morning, emergency crews were beginning to reckon with the monumental devastation left in Ian’s wake, as homes were ripped from their foundations and public buildings damaged.
“I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds,” Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told Good Morning America Thursday. “There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued.”
Marceno later walked back those figures, telling CNN, “I don’t know the exact numbers, it’s very preliminary,” noting that confirmed fatalities in Lee County—which included severely hit areas like Fort Myers Beach and the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva—stood as “roughly five.” The death t0ll is expected to rise, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told MSNBC.
“Currently we are unsure foremost about what is going to happen, there are floods left and right. Hopefully, everyone is doing alright. Furthermore, I do not have many updates,” Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
In Collier County, just south of Lee County, Deputy County Manager Dan Rodriguez told The Daily Beast that the medical examiner is reviewing a “handful” of deaths. “And whether they’re hurricane related or not, or just health conditions, that’s to be determined.”
Charlotte County Commissioner Joseph Tiseo told CNN on Thursday afternoon that the death toll there had risen to “at least eight or nine,” according to correspondent Ana Cabrera. However, the count has been fluid, and Charlotte later in the day reported six confirmed deaths, according to NBC News, which also reported two storm-related deaths in Sarasota and Volusia Counties. In an email to The Daily Beast, Lake County authorities confirmed a 38-year-old man wrecked car and died on Wednesday when his vehicle hydroplaned on a rain-slicked road.
— Smurph (@swmurfl) September 29, 2022
Rescue attempts will be hindered on Thursday by roads being submerged or blocked by trees and power lines. A large section of the causeway leading to Sanibel Island has been washed away by the hurricane, and in Naples, extreme flooding has made over half of the streets “not passable due to high water,” Collier County officials said.
A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway has collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico. This is the only way on and off the island of Sanibel. That means anyone who didn’t evacuate is stuck for now. #HurricaneIanupdate #HurricanIan pic.twitter.com/hAYQQHcLMM
— Kyla Galer (@kylagaler) September 29, 2022
Wind and rain even left parts of Central Florida under water and without power, including Orlando where “lakes are swelling and roads have been converted into rivers,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
In Deltona, north-east of Orlando, a 72-year-old man died overnight when he went outside during the storm to drain his pool, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. The victim’s wife told police her husband disappeared after leaving their home. Deputies first found the man’s flashlight, then discovered him unresponsive in a nearby canal.
“The initial investigation indicates the victim was using a hose to drain the pool down a hill and into a 30-foot-wide canal, where a steep decline into the water was extremely soft and slippery due to the heavy rain,” the release stated.
A lower-level emergency room at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte was flooded as brutal winds tore part of the roof from the building’s intensive care unit, the Associated Press reports. Staff had to evacuate patients on ventilators to other floors as water washed into the ICU.
More water-related hospital evacuations may yet be on the way.
“We know there’s nine hospitals in Lee County that the state is looking at right now to determine whether or not we’re going to be able to get water restored to them, or whether or not they’re going to have to be evacuated,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said on Morning Joe Thursday. “They have no water,” she added.
Other emergency services reported heartbreaking difficulties during the peak of the storm. In Fort Myers, first responders took calls from residents trapped in their flooded houses, or from concerned relatives who hadn’t heard from their loved ones, but conditions prevented rescue efforts being launched.
“We are aware of a number of calls from people stranded due to high water,” Lee County Public Safety Director Ben Abes said late Wednesday, the News-Press reports. “However, we are faced with conditions that make it impossible to respond right now.”
Some even posted desperate pleas for help on social media, along with terrifying descriptions of their homes filling up with flood water.
“My brother, Francis ‘Chip’ Aldridge, and his girlfriend, Suzanne Merlo, lost everything today when the storm surge from Hurricane Ian flooded their apartment in Naples, Florida,” Julie Hittle posted on GoFundMe. “As their refrigerator floated across their living room in four feet of dirty water, they escaped out a window and climbed to safety on top of their car, taking only their beloved cocker spaniel, Kobie, and one plastic bin of important papers and keepsakes. Everything else, including furniture, clothes and household items, was destroyed. They were rescued by a kind stranger paddling down the road in a kayak who dropped them on a covered sidewalk.”
The family told The Daily Beast that the couple eventually reached a La Quinta Inn “which let them stay because they had nowhere else to go,” before reaching a shelter.
Scott Mayer, who lives in Key West, sustained severe water damage during the storm.
“It was a really rough. Scary doesn’t begin to describe it, but we’re all safe, so gotta keep [our] chin up,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he is spending the day “cleaning flood damage up from our apartment.”
For Tyler Martin, the hurricane destroyed the house sailboat he had been restoring and living on for five years. He nervously hunkered down at a nearby hotel as the storm approached and, when he went back a few hours later, he realized there was no saving his boat or all the belongings inside.
“When you spend so much time with a boat like that it takes on a life of its own. It’s like a dog, you know, like a part of the family. So it felt like I left my dog in the rain,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he only had a suitcase of clothes with him.
“I’m alive and I can rebuild, that’s the most important thing. But it’s devastating for sure,” said Martin, 38, whose friend set up a GoFundMe to help him start over.
The areas with the most damage are “basically off the grid” at this point, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday morning, noting that it may take months to rebuild the power grid in the counties of Lee and Charlotte. The Florida National Guard is deploying search-and-rescue choppers to barrier islands where flooding is extensive and bridges are out, he said.
“Our community has been, in some respects, decimated,” Lee County Manager Roger DesJarlais said late Wednesday, according to WGCU. He added that while no deaths were yet confirmed, it was “reasonable to think” that “there could be some fatalities.”
Ian made landfall at 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday near Cayo Costa—an island off Fort Myers—as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds. Early Thursday, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Ian to a tropical storm, warning that danger of “life-threatening storm surge” will remain through Friday along the northeast coast of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Flooding is expected in the three states until the end of next week.
Terry Mazany, 66, was hunkered down on the 22nd floor of his Fort Myers high-rise condo with his wife and his 91-year-old mother when the hurricane’s eye made landfall on Wednesday. After briefly losing power and dealing with hours of hurricane-force winds that made their building sway, Mazany told The Daily Beast his family is now trapped inside.
“We have no way of getting out,” Mazany said. “They are assessing the elevator and there is water damage on the ground floor so they can’t make that operational yet.”
Mazany added that after moving to Florida from California about a year ago, he and his wife decided last month to move his mother from Chicago because of her dementia diagnosis. A self-described “hurricane novice,” he said he had no idea that the move would mean the trio would have to hunker down together during the deadly storm.
“We had basically 10 straight hours of hurricane force winds battering the condo building,” he said, before adding that the swaying of the condo at one point even made him seasick. “Thankfully, things are much better than they were 24 hours ago.”
Just as Cuba’s power was wiped out when Ian hit the island, Florida was similarly blighted by blackouts during the storm. Over 2.5 million customers were plunged into darkness, according to tracking site PowerOutage.us.
— Parker Branton (@ParkerBranton) September 29, 2022
Airports have canceled hundreds of flights on Thursday, with the Southwest Florida International Airport and Orlando International Airport pulling all of its scheduled operations.
On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Florida, allowing the affected counties to receive necessary aid to start the rebuilding process. Speaking during a Fox News appearance Wednesday night, DeSantis said the storm would bring “one of the biggest flood events we’ve ever had. What remains to be seen is how much damage the wind did. Obviously it’s very significant.”
In response to the near-unthinkable destruction, U-Haul is offering a month of free self-storage at 43 locations to Florida residents. For those in need of food, Feeding Tampa Bay is providing fresh produce, bottled water, and prepared meals to all. Uber is giving away free round-trip rides, up to $30 each way, to and from any state-approved evacuation center, with the code IANRELIEF. And anyone impacted by Ian can schedule free telehealth visits through Florida Blue—even non-members—by calling 855-225-5032.
The storm is expected to barrel up the East Coast on Thursday, with Georgia and possibly the Carolinas in its path.
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