Hurricane Ian took a permanent place in Southwest Florida history Wednesday, with an agonizingly slow sweep through the region, leaving devastated families, ruined homes and uncertain futures.
More damage was caused by Ian than any other storm since Roger Desjarlais said he's been Lee County manager.
The powerful hurricane made landfall near pristine Cayo Costa, but the fury of its winds and rough surf spread destruction throughout Lee County.
Rescue evacuations delayed
Damage was so severe that it was decided by county and local officials to wait before making some evacuations, for fear it could kill the rescuers.
"It left families suffering the agony of knowing that loved ones cling to life in areas that can not yet be reached by rescue crews because it is it too dangerous to save them," Desjarlais said.
County Public Safety Director Ben Abes said the county made a reluctant decision based on the dangers and threatening conditions rescuers would face.
"We are aware of a number of calls from people stranded due to high water," Abes said. "However, we are faced with conditions that make it impossible to respond right now."
Flooding has moved from the coast to inland locations and, Abes said, the county will work to engage agencies from the local level to state and national authorities to rescue the people trapped, and people endangered by power lines as quickly as possible.
"We urge you not to panic, if you can remain safe where you are our first responder community urges you to stay there," Abes said. "If you have water coming in your home call 911 and seek the highest spot possible."
Rescue assistance from the federal government will be dispatched as soon as it is safe for them to travel to Lee County. Boats, high water vehicles and helicopters will be used in the rescue operation.
One of Lee County's worst disasters
All signs indicate it is among the worst natural disasters in local history.
"I am sad to tell you that while we don't know the full extent of the damage for Lee County right now, we are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated," Desjarlais said.
The manager said Wednesday night that the county does not yet have an estimate of the number of people who may have died as a result of the hurricane's advance.
"It is reasonable to think all the conditions that we have experienced for the last 12 hours or so that there can be fatalities but we just don't now that yet," Desjarlais said.
The storm has dealt a wide blow to the electric grids that serve the hundreds of thousands of households and businesses in the area.
"We know that there is tremendous damage on Sanibel and in Fort Myers Beach, we know that LCEC, about 75% of their (electric) customers are without power, 80% of FP&L customers are are without power. we don't know yet the extent of the damage to our infrastructure whether its the electrical grid, or utility systems."
In Cape Coral, sewer lift stations have failed at more than 200 locations, and city officials have urged residents to reduce their use of water.
No tolerance for criminals
Roads have suffered substantial damage that will require significant work and time to fix.
A 6 p.m. Wednesday to 5 a.m. Thursday curfew was imposed by agreement of the six local county governments and Lee County.
"There is going to be a zero tolerance policy for looting and violence," Desjarlais said.
Curfews were triggered by a break-in and looting spree in a Cleveland Street gas station.
The curfew will remain in place until further notice, dependent on when the remnants of Ira's slow-paced devastation dissipates. Exceptions will be made for health care workers, going to work or school and essential personnel.
"We understand that there are people waiting for us," said commissioner Kevin Ruane. But we can't put anyone else in harm's way and we have to wait for the conditions to improve.
"This is going to be a very difficult, trying time for the next several months," Desjarlais said. "The response and recovery effort is going to be complex, it is going to be costly and it is going to require very concentrated efforts by federal state and local government agencies and the private sector."
"For all of us who have lived in Florida for a lot of years, we have been through many, many hurricanes locally." Desjarlais continued. "It seems as though every storm that we have endured we have heard about tidal surge and we have heard about flooding, but it hasn't been our time.
"You wonder whether it is going to be our turn. Well it appears to be our time to endure that."
News-Press reporter Luis Zambrano contributed to this story
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian spread destruction across Southwest Florida