Florida awoke Thursday to destruction and desperation.
A monster-sized Hurricane Ian pummeled the state on Wednesday with crushing storm surge, obliterating wind speeds and torrential rainfall, leaving a swath of devastation from the southwestern coast across the I-4 corridor.
The hurricane, the fifth-most powerful to ever hit the U.S., left countless homes and businesses wrecked or underwater and nearly 2.7 million people without power.
'Fort Myers Beach is gone': Waterfront workers recount Hurricane Ian devastation
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“Fort Myers is devastated,” tweeted Dylan Federico, a meteorologist for WINK News. “Tough hurricane proof infrastructure that’s in shambles. There’s no electricity or water. It’s unlivable. Wind damage is far worse than I saw after Irma, Ida, Harvey or Katrina.”
The death toll in Florida continued to climb. The New York Times reported Friday that officials identified at least three dozen fatalities possibly linked to the storm.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, who initially estimated deaths in the hundreds, said there were at least 35 confirmed fatalities in the county. Six people were reported dead in Charlotte County, an elected official there also told CNN. In Volusia County, a 72-year-old man died after venturing outside to drain his pool.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday morning there were only two unconfirmed storm-related deaths, though he said more "clarity" would come over time.
“The damage done is historic,” DeSantis said. “We have never seen a flood like this. We have never seen storm surge of this magnitude.”
Fort Myers: 'Barely anything left'
In Lee County, the damage was so extensive and conditions on the ground so treacherous that local officials made the agonizing decision to wait before attempting certain rescues.
Lee County officials said there were a “number of calls” from people stranded by high water as flooding moved from the coast to points inland.
“It left families suffering the agony of knowing that loved ones cling to life in areas that cannot yet be reached by rescue crews because it is too dangerous to save them,” said Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais.
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Emergency officials in Fort Myers Beach told the Tampa Bay Times that not everyone abided by evacuation orders and that they expected to find bodies as the searched through the rubble.
“Absolute devastation,” said Fire Marshall Jennifer Campbell. “There’s barely anything left.”
The causeway to Sanibel Island and the Pine Island bridge were rendered impassible and in need of structural repairs, DeSantis said.
After touring Charlotte and Lee counties, the governor remarked that "Sanibel is destruction" and got hit with "really Biblical storm surge."
Fort Myers Beach, along with Lee County’s other barrier islands, took the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s assault on Florida’s coastline. Its commercial center, marketed as one of the most iconic areas of the town, was decimated.
From the strike zone: 'Fort Myers Beach is gone': Waterfront workers recount Hurricane Ian devastation
“7-Eleven’s gone. The Whale’s gone. All the restaurants are gone,” resident Mitch Stough told The Fort Myers News-Press. “The whole entire Times Square is gone. It’s leveled.”
Bonita Springs: Tears after a labor of love lost
In Bonita Springs, some structures were flattened by the storm surge, including Doc's Beach House.
The walls on Doc's Beach House caved in when the storm surge went back out, said Charlie Cibula, the owner’s son, who said his father has owned it since 1987.
Nearby, his father picked through the wreckage of the restaurant's first floor, standing in the doorway. There were no walls surrounding the door frame.
“We’ll get it back up and running,” the father said.
Doc's Beach House also suffered a propane leak, and Lee County sheriff's deputies were turning residents back, urging them to stay away and stay safe. The smell of gas wafted through the air, and was noticeable blocks away.
Jason Crosser, who owns 8-Bit Hall of Fame, a classic video game store on Bonita Beach Road Southwest near the curve, lost everything. He and his wife, Erica, perched outside their shop on the empty windowsills, a cutout of Hulk Hogan next to them. Crosser said he knew yesterday afternoon that his shop had been lost, when a local news channel showed a photo of the building where his shop was located. In the photo, his shop was already halfway submerged, he said.
Crosster's eyes were rimmed with red, and he could barely keep from crying. He's lived here for 16 years, and pumped every dollar back into his shop that he could, he said. It was a labor of love.
"We don't know what to do first," he said. He used to be a history teacher, he added, and said he might just move on.
"I might go back to Iowa and teach."
— Kate Cimini, Naples Daily News reporter
Naples: 'A moat around City Hall'
Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann told MSNBC on Thursday that local officials were caught by surprise by Hurricane Ian’s massive floodwaters that rushed through her southwestern Florida coastal city of nearly 22,000 residents.
“Unfortunately, we prepared for the winds but not for the floods,” said Heitman, who said flooding in the city’s downtown area was between seven and nine inches.
Her biggest worry, she said, was that Fort Myers doesn't have water. She said the city lost one fire truck that got damaged during the storm after a local fire station got flooded.
City firefighters and emergency rescue personnel, she said, have been busy saving people trapped in their cars or homes due to the high flood waters. She added that most city residents followed the advice of city and state officials to evacuate flood-prone areas.
“We did have a few incidences [in which] our firefighters put themselves at risk and save members of our community,” she said.
The flooding was overwhelming said, Reitman, who said city hall, which sits next to a fire station, was surrounded by water.
“It felt like there was a moat around City Hall,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
Venice: Watching roofs blow off and a local landmark blasted
Bob and Mary Kuziel walked downtown Venice on Tampa Avenue searching for cell or internet Thursday morning about 8 a.m.
The Venice residents had weathered the storm in their condo on the ground floor of the nine-story Costa Brava condo building.
Bob Kuziel said they watched the rain come in sideways over Roberts Bay.
"We're trying to get in touch with people to let them know we are okay," Mary Kuziel said.
Instead, they found Venice Little Theater devastated by Hurricane Ian. The near-Category 5 storm had ripped through the local landmark just over the north bridge to the island of Venice.
Bob Kuziel said his grandkids have attended drama camp at the theater and it's a great place for seniors to spend time. He said it was sad to see it in this state.
While the fear had been that storm surge would plunge Venice under feet of water, it appears Ian's worst damage has come from winds in Venice.
At the Municipal Airport Mobile Home Park, many trailers had extensive roof damage. Cotton-candy pink insulation and twisted metal roof debris was strewn throughout the property.
Doris Welch has owned a manufactured home in the park since 1997, but only owned the mobile home – where the aluminum roof was now peeled like an orange – since 2005.
She said she weathered the storm at a friend's property about 10 minutes away. But on the ride over she worried that her property would be flattened.
"We know what mother nature can do with winds that high," she said. "It was inevitable."
While the damage looked bad, with parts of the roof flipped back, Welch thought the majority of the roof held and expected that it wasn't too severe.
Venice Municipal Airport, about half-mile from the mobile home park, had severe damage to several hangers.
"I lost two planes," Andre Ghawi said. "They were in the hangar. The hangar doesn't exist anymore. You don't figure on something like this happening."
Meanwhile, Wayne LeBlanc spent Thursday morning picking up parts of his neighbor's roof at the Venice Municipal Mobile Home Park. He said he hunkered down in his trailer when Ian struck.
"Three-quarters of the way thru, I was wishing I hadn't. I watched roofs get ripped off." he said.
— Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Derek Gilliam
North Port: Eight hours of destruction with a 'horrendous' soundtrack
In this North Port community, hundreds of homes were destroyed by Hurricane Ian.
George and Sharon Fink weathered Hurricane Ian in their manufactured home in North Port, only to realize Thursday morning that their house was one of few spared by the Category 4 storm that tore through the community.
The Fink’s live in Holiday Park, a retiree community in North Port with 836 manufactured homes that was devastated on Wednesday by winds that topped 100 miles per hour. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, but theirs stood tall on Thursday morning.
“The noise was horrendous,” Sharon, 74, said. “The noise reminded me of being at a stock car race, and the engines are revving. That is what the wind sounded like. The roar from the stock cars, that’s what it sounded like. It was nonstop, wind just blowing and blowing. It was like that for like 8 hours.”
Many of the homes were built in the 1970s, but the couple purchased a new model built by Jacobson about 6 years ago meant to withstand hurricane-force winds. The couple said law enforcement asked residents of the park to evacuate, but they decided to stay because of the confidence in the integrity of their home.
“That aluminum sound is the biggest noise, because its light, it takes off like a plane, then when it hits, it hits,” George, 82, said. “I really think it was exciting, because I would look out the windows and see a part of a roof just blowing past.”
Much of that debris from the community littered Chancellor Boulevard Thursday morning, where residential homeowners cleaned rooftops, metal slabs, downed power lines, glass and rubble from their front yard.
“A piece of metal struck right through my roof like a spear, I was getting water in my living room, in one of the bedrooms the ceiling fell down onto the bed, the roof is peeled back, the fence is down,” said Richard Sylva, who took shelter inside his home with his wife Donna, his dogs Lexi and Venzie, and a cat whose name he could no longer remember.
His neighbor, Ron Smart, 82, watched much of the hurricane from his backyard. He has lived in the community for 42 years, and 11 years in his current home on Chancellor Boulevard.
He had nowhere else to go.
“I sat there and watched my shed blow apart, the roof fly off the other one, and all this stuff fly around,” Smart said. “The worst of the wind was coming out of the east when it first started, then it shifted around and that’s when all this damage happened. I stayed in the back because I was out of the wind.”
Charlotte County: Water gushing into a hospital ICU
Hurricane Ian swamped a Florida hospital from both above and below, the storm surge flooding its lower level emergency room while fierce winds tore part of its fourth floor roof from its intensive care unit, a doctor who works there told The Associated Press early Thursday.
Dr. Birgit Bodine spent the night at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte, anticipating the storm would make things busy, “but we didn’t anticipate that the roof would blow off on the fourth floor,” she said.
Water gushed down from above onto the ICU, forcing staff to evacuate the hospital’s sickest patients — some of them on ventilators — to other floors. Staff members resorted to towels and plastic bins to try to mop up the sodden mess, the AP reported.
The medium-sized hospital spans four floors, but patients were forced into just two because of the storm damage.
Orange County: Ian deluges downtown Orlando and surrounding areas
In Orange County, more than a foot of rainfall sent floodwaters into downtown Orlando and across the community.
Local firefighters and law enforcement rescued about 30 people from Orlo Vista, a low-lying area five miles west of downtown Orlando, according to a report by the Orlando Sentinel.
In Winter Springs, Amanda Trompeta and Dimitrios Frantzis told the Sentinel they discovered floodwaters in their home after their dog woke them up with barking around 5 a.m. Within an hour or two, the water started lifting furniture and even their refrigerator.
“I thought he was just scared of the storm and when I stood up I realized the water was ankle deep,” Trompeta said.
Punta Gorda: Riding out the storm surrounded by couch cushions on a tarped hospital bed
In Punta Gorda, Ian ripped down trees and power lines and partially collapsed at least two buildings, Spectrum Bay News 9 reported. As much as 7 feet of storm surge inundated the small town.
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Renee Smith rode the hurricane out under her kitchen table, taking shelter only after making sure her husband, Christopher, who is paralyzed and fighting prostate cancer, was safe and secure, she told MSNBC.
She said she tied blankets and a tarp to his hospital bed, surrounded him with cushions and put a life jacket on him “so he wouldn’t drown” in a flood.
“It was terrifying,” she said.
Contact Jeff Burlew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Hurricane Ian damage, impact in cities across Florida