VENICE, Florida — Battling rising floodwaters on boat and horseback, rescuers plucked stranded residents from their homes and herded cattle to higher ground as the Myakka River overflowed its banks Saturday.
Locals and rescuers, long familiar with how hurricanes push water into their neighborhoods, said Hurricane Ian drove unusually high flooding, which came three days after the storm’s passage.
The heavy storm surge was exacerbated by hours of pounding rainfall in Central Florida – leading to deep inland flooding. Several longtime residents blamed new developments for destroying historic floodplains able to soak up the water.
“We’re used to flooding, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jennifer Stringer, 50, a high school teacher who has lived alongside the river since 2011. “All that water has no place to go.”
The high waters forced a nearly 24-hour closure of Interstate 75 over the river as engineers assessed the damage to bridge piers about seven miles inland from the coast. The closure caused massive traffic jams Friday night as returning evacuees struggled to get home.
Stringer said when she left her house two days earlier, water was 6 inches below the front door of her stilt home. The water was significantly higher Saturday, and she worried what she’d find as she boarded a small boat to float down the road into her neighborhood.
'Worst I've ever seen it here'
By Saturday afternoon, a flotilla of boats was buzzing around the neighborhood, from small fishing boats to kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.
Bruce Phillips, 61, grimly climbed aboard a borrowed kayak to paddle to his longtime home off Border Road, near the Sleeping Turtles park. He and his family have lived there for 45 years, and he feared what he'd find.
Phillips evacuated his elderly mother before the storm arrived, and came back Saturday to check on the property. Phillips remembered minor flooding during previous storms and floating around on 55-gallon drums as a kid. Ian, he said, was different.
"It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it here," he said.
Most of the flooding took place inland of Venice, impacting several cattle and horse ranches, including Stepping Stones Farms, where volunteers swam eight horses out to dry land Saturday.
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'Man, that's a lot of water'
“You see the water and it’s like, 'man that’s a lot of water.' It’s crazy," said Jason White, 40, who helped tear down fences so his friends could remove the animals. "But the horses intuitively know what to do.”
Chelsea Sunderman, 33, rode out out on a horse named Ringo, snapping a selfie midswim. She said she helped rescue a calf the night before, and returned Saturday to help other volunteers with the horses.
"I can't believe we did that," Sunderman said after loading Ringo into a horse trailer for evacuation.
Scott Benge, 54, who owns Stepping Stones Farm, said bringing the horses to a safe barn where they could be fed and watered was an immense relief. He said he and his family had been wading through the waters as they rose, trying to keep the horses fed, watered and safe.
“It’s a huge burden lifted off our shoulders," he said. "We can ride in a boat, but the horses can’t.”
About a half a mile away, Keith Stafford, 27, sat in the bed of his pickup looking out at the water surrounding his home. Stafford and his friends drove through the water earlier in the day when it had been lower.
“We’re OK, but this is definitely the highest I’ve seen it here. We went through Hurricane Charley and it didn’t even come close to what we’re seeing," he said. "Now we’ve got our own private island."
Concerns time was running out
Authorities had no reports of deaths from the flooding, but were concerned about the safety of a Sarasota County water treatment plant.
Late Saturday afternoon, the waters were still rising, and Nikki Duyn worried aloud about her neighbors and livestock.
Duyn's home was spared, but she fretted about the cows and goats still stuck on grassy islands within the flooded areas. Her family spent several days helping extract horses and other livestock from the flood zones, and Duyn shared their work on TiKTok to her 56,000 followers, prompting a flood of requests for help.
As the sun began to descend over the flooded neighborhood, Duyn fretted there wasn't enough time to help everyone, despite the best efforts of her husband and his large extended family.
Even her 12-year-old son, Cody, was pressed into service as a rescue boat captain, zooming over the top of fences, dodging submerged mailboxes and circling neighbor's flooded yards.
“It just keeps coming,” Duyn said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Ian floodwaters threatened inland Venice, Florida