FORT MYERS, Fla. — As Ian continued its destructive trek across Florida, roughly 2 million households across the state awoke on Thursday without electricity as the Gulf Coast began to assess leveled homes, flooded buildings and streets, and damaged or destroyed road and bridges.
Rescue crews also continued pulling people stranded on barrier islands — a task complicated on the popular tourist destinations of Sanibel and Captiva because a section of the only bridge linking them to the mainland had been washed away.
While there were likely to be deaths across Florida — at least two people may have died from storm — Gov. Ron DeSantis urged caution about early rumors of mass fatalities, saying rescuers were still responding to earlier 911 calls.
“There’s a number of people who have been helicoptered to safety,” DeSantis said at a Thursday morning briefing in Tallahassee.
Across Southwest Florida, where Hurricane Ian made landfall as one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, the scenes of devastation were jarring.
A chunk of that causeway to Sanibel Island, the normally idyllic barrier island, was completely severed, making passage possible only by boat. Exactly how many people, if any, remained stranded on the barrier islands was unclear. The mainland road leading to the causeway was folded up like an accordion and covered by debris, including a stray spiral staircase deposited by the winds into the brush next to a pickup truck.
The road to Pine Island, another residential barrier island off shore from Ft. Myers, was also impassable, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Thursday morning briefing. Some 100 engineers had been dispatched to inspect bridges.
In hard-hit Cape Coral, emergency crews were trying to clear roads on Thursday morning as pipeline damage forced the city to shut down its water system. Officials urged residents to boil water and drink bottled water.
In downtown Fort Myers, boats that had been docked in the river sat in a jumble in the parking lot of Joe’s Crab Shack, hulls ripped open.
“I’ll take a snowstorm over this any day,” said Natalie Mathweg, who on Thursday morning was walking two dogs with her sister and father. They slogged through thick, gooey mud and over downed trees, street lamps and telephone poles. They’d just survived their first hurricane after moving to Florida from Wisconsin last year.
“Our first one and the worst Fort Myers has ever seen,” father Neil Mathweg said.
One TV correspondent, Brian Entin of News Nation, reported that water had receded from downtown Fort Myers but power was almost entirely out. “Had to drive around several boats on the road,” Entin tweeted.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais late Wednesday predicted there would be fatalities. “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, according to the Ft. Myers News-Press.
To the north near Venice, major roads were impassible, too dangerous to drive on because of downed trees, electrical poles and flood water. Abandoned cars littered the road ways near mobile homes that were nothing more than twisted metal and ripped-up roofs. Virtually no road or business signs were left standing on Tamiami Trail near Venice.
To the south in Marco Island, another popular vacation spot, police early Thursday reported that most of the roads were no longer flooded but roads were blocked by abandoned cars. “Teams are attempting to move them,” the police wrote in an Instagram post. “Public Works worked through the night removing trees from roadways. Utilities are still out. Cell phone coverage is intermittent.”
A Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ian made landfall on Wednesday afternoon at Cape Cayo, a small island north of Captiva, then again north of Punta Gorda on the mainland. With winds of 155 miles per hour — nearly a Category 5 — the storm battered Southwest Florida, tearing buildings off their foundations, submerging streets and tearing boats from their moors.
Rescue crews — including U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters — on Thursday morning were scouring neighborhoods, in particular on the cut-off barrier islands, looking for trapped survivors.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno raised a stir on Thursday morning when he told Good Morning America that there were “hundreds” of fatalities.
DeSantis, however, later clarified that the number was unconfirmed and that it referred to the number of 911 calls made during the storm. Marcelo later told MSNBC “we have had some deceased” but did not repeat his previous estimate of “hundreds.” It may take days to confirm deaths. For perspective, Hurricane Charley killed 15 people roaring through the same area in 2004 — though it was a much smaller storm.
The storm also delivered a punishing blow to Florida’s power grid. DeSantis on Thursday said much of Lee and Collier’s grids will have to be completely rebuilt, given the ferocity of the wind and water damage. At one point on Wednesday, more than 2 million customers were without electricity; on Thursday morning, DeSantis reported 2 million were still without power — with Southwest Florida hardest hit.
“Lee and Charlotte are basically off the grid at this point,” DeSantis said during the briefing.
At least two healthcare facilities in Southwest Florida were also being evacuated, he said. President Biden had also declared Florida counties as disaster zones, allowing federal aid and resources to flow into the hardest-hit areas.
Ian, by Thursday morning, had weakened to a tropical storm but nevertheless hammered portions of Florida’s central region with winds near 65 miles per hour and torrential rain.
In Apopka, about 20 miles northwest of Orlando, an uprooted tree toppled onto one family’s home, causing rain to seep into the cracked ceiling. A television reporter with WESH-2 rescued a woman whose car got trapped in floodwaters in Orlando. One local Orlando lake overflowed early Thursday, submerging sidewalks and streets.
In Volusia County, between Orlando and the east coast, the sheriff’s office reported that a man died after he was discovered in a canal — he’d ventured out during the storm to drain his pool.
“This storm is having broad impacts across the state. Some of the flooding you are going to see — hundreds of miles from where this made landfall — is going to set records,” DeSantis said.
Ian delivered its destruction as Florida was already grappling with a long-faltering homeowners insurance market. In a state where costs for homeowners have skyrocketed and 14 companies have stopped writing new policies in recent years, the state-backed insurance company of last resort has already delivered an early estimate of at least 225,000 claims and $3.8 billion in damage from Ian.
Even though many roads are open in Southwest and Central Florida, officials urged people to refrain from sight-seeing.
“Do not come in and tour the area for damage,” said Kevin Guthrie, the director of Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We have 20,000 [or] 30,000 responders coming into [the] area that need access to those roads. Stay at home.”