She is one of millions of people in Southwest Florida who have endured 24 terrifying hours and now realize that their homes and towns will forever be changed by Ian. The massive storm brought near Category 5 winds, devastating rain and storm surges exceeding 10 feet. The storm’s wrath and massive rainfall will be felt in most corners of Florida, even as it leaves the state and heads into the Atlantic Ocean.
No place, however, was hit harder than Lee County, where the storm made landfall on Wednesday. It wiped out bridges, left the vast majority of the county without power, 1,300 hospital patients needing to be evacuated from local hospitals and growing fear that search and rescue missions could cause chilling deaths.
“I lost everything I owned,” said State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican whose district represents part of Lee County. “I have two pairs of jeans, four shirts and a pair of shoes in my name. It’s all gone.
Roach made the last-minute decision at 11 p.m. Tuesday night to drive to his brother’s home on Florida’s Atlantic coast as the weather rapidly deteriorated. But he said he stayed in touch with his neighbors all night as Ian destroyed his Waterway Estates neighborhood.
Many of those who remained huddled on the top floor of the only two-story house on his street, just hoping the rising waters wouldn’t reach them.
“Last night, the last communication I had with them was people in the neighborhood were huddled together on the second floor just watching the water rise around them,” Roach said. “Everything is flooded. All. All the houses are flooded.
The area suffered from Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Charley in 2004, widely considered the region’s worst in recent memory. But early assessments clearly show that Hurricane Ian is the new answer to the question, “What was the most devastating hurricane in Lee County?”
“I’ve been in Lee County for almost 30 years and been through a number of hurricanes, and this was unique because it took forever,” said State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who represents coastal portions of the hardest hit areas of Lee County. . “[Hurricane] Charley rolled, but it moved quickly. This one hovered over us for hours, wreaking havoc everywhere.
Photos and videos from locations in and near Fort Myers show those areas almost completely wiped out, but authorities have yet to tally things like injuries or fatalities. President Joe Biden said early reports Thursday indicated “substantial loss of life” from the storm, although late Thursday there were initial reports of five deaths in Lee County, six in Charlotte County and one in Volusia County.
“We won’t know the total death toll until people can get to the ground and get a better idea of who stayed and who evacuated,” Rodrigues said. “We have two confirmed at the moment, and from what I see that number will increase and probably significantly.”
Early Thursday morning, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he believed the death toll in his county could be in the hundreds – although he has admitted that he had no confirmed figures.
“It will be a life-changing event for the men and women who respond,” he said. “They’re going to see things they’ve never seen before.”
During a Thursday morning briefing at the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the death toll in the hundreds was not yet confirmed and crews were just beginning to assess the damage.
Determining who is trapped in their homes and carrying out search and rescue missions is the immediate focus of counties across the region, most of which also suffered severe storm damage, particularly in coastal areas besieged by a record storm surge.
Brian Gleason, the communications coordinator for neighboring Charlotte County, said about 900 calls were waiting for rescuers when the storm began to calm down and they were able to begin assessing the damage.
“There were still a lot of people in the city,” he said. “I think we had good compliance [with evacuation orders] based on the traffic we saw, but there were people who thought their structures were in good shape and decided to hang around.
Although most of the worst damage was concentrated in Lee and Charlotte counties, the entire Gulf Coast of southwest Florida has been hit hard and faces a massive cleanup effort ahead.
“I looked around and saw nothing but utter destruction,” said Barry Gordon, who weathered Hurricane Ian from inside his Venice home in Sarasota County. . “Things are awful here – terrible – almost impassable roads.”
Gordon wrapped parts of his house in Kevlar blankets which he said protected much of it from flying debris. He said Ian’s mighty eye sat on his community for seven hours before the slow-moving storm finally moved. He watched the strong winds and rain behind one of the large protective covers draped over the birdcage by his swimming pool.
“The power of nature alone is incredibly believable,” Gordon said. “Almost everyone has stuff out of their roofs.”
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