Floridians hit by hurricane face gridlock, flooding, extensive damage

Washington Post by Melissa Sue Gerrits
Myrtle Beach, S.C., experienced flooding on Sept. 30 as Hurricane Ian came ashore.

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Search and rescue efforts continued along Florida’s west coast as residents confronted the sweeping devastation and rising death toll wrought by Hurricane Ian, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall in the continental United States.

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission said Saturday that the storm had resulted in 25 deaths, most of them due to drowning. The figure is likely to rise as search and rescue teams continue to comb through the debris. Officials didn’t offer estimates on the number of people still missing three days after the storm first struck the state.

More than half of the officially recorded deaths were among senior citizens, reflecting a storm that has wielded an outsize impact on the elderly given the area is popular with retirees. About 33 percent of southwest Florida’s population is over 65, compared with nearly 17 percent of the U.S. population at large, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In North Port, some retirees who evacuated to shelters didn’t have anywhere to go.

Cynthia King, 91, rode out the storm at a friend’s house but was evacuated by boat early Saturday. She wonders where she will go next because she isn’t sure the house she originally left is habitable.

“There are ups and downs to living in Florida, and this is definitely a down,” King said. “I have been sitting here a long time, and I just want someone who can take me home.”

More than three days after Ian bulldozed into southwest Florida, communities farther inland in central Florida, including Orlando, are also inundated by water.

The storm is estimated to have caused more than $60 billion in property loss in Florida alone, making it the “second-largest catastrophe loss event on record” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group.

The estimate is based on models that look at the scope of property damage and the population of affected areas. It’s limited to projected private insurer losses and litigation expenses, said Mark Friedlander, a spokesman for the institute. The figure does not include flood damage losses to be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

More than a million people in Florida remained without power as of 7 p.m. on Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us, which aggregates outage data. Officials warned that hazardous debris and electrical wires could be hidden in flooded areas and urged residents to take caution as they set about cleaning up the destruction.

The historic rainfall brought record flooding to Orange, Volusia and Seminole counties, National Weather Service meteorologist Kole Fehling said. Significant flooding along the St. Johns River and Shingle Creek in towns outside Orlando could last for weeks, Fehling said.

Florida has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to help local authorities repair damaged water systems.

“The water and the electrical are really top priorities after the life rescue mission,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said during a news conference Saturday. He said more than 54 percent of people who have lost power in Florida due to the storm now have electricity back. As of 7 a.m. Saturday, more than 1,100 rescues have been made, his administration said.

For some of the 2 million hurricane evacuees, getting anywhere has proved difficult, as power outages continue and floodwaters persist. A 14-mile portion of Interstate 75 south of Tampa was shut down Friday and many sections of the highway remained closed Saturday, a result of flooding from the Myakka River. A compromised levee forced evacuations in a Sarasota neighborhood.

The storm has proved particularly difficult for elderly Floridians with medical conditions.

Maria Acerbo, 81, rode out the storm with her husband, Tom, in St. James City before being rescued by the nonprofit Medic Corps. She was taken to Sarasota to stay with their daughter. Leaving a specially equipped handicapped bathroom and a hospital bed for her husband was particularly hard, she said, as was leaving the house in general.

“It was very, very sad because it was everything we have,” Acerbo said.

Still, she said she has been touched by how the community has come together.

“Everybody’s wonderful, more so when there’s a catastrophe,” Acerbo said. “Everybody did everything. Neighbors that I never knew. So beautiful.”

Many Floridians said the scope of the damage is beyond anything they have ever seen.

“Everything downstairs is destroyed,” Maureen Vath said of her house on Sanibel Island. “My piano was floating. The desks were in the wrong rooms. Our kitchen cutting board was on the floor, all of our papers, all of our files – everything was just a mess.”

Ahead of the hurricane, the predicted storm surge levels hadn’t worried Vath and her husband, Rich, who live inland from the beach but near a small canal. They had weathered Hurricane Charley in 2004 – and prepared with a generator in case of power loss. But they had to be rescued as the storm surge from Hurricane Ian flooded the barrier island.

“We were taught a lesson,” Vath said, noting that she and her husband also lost their two cars.

Officials in Lee County – which includes the areas hit hardest by the storm – faced questions about why the county didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order in its most flood-prone areas until Tuesday morning, leaving many residents insufficient time to leave before the storm hit that afternoon. The county manager and sheriff’s offices didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

Top officials in Florida said mandatory evacuation notices were issued in some cases the morning of the hurricane’s landfall because it was difficult to pinpoint where the storm was going – and initial projections showed it striking farther up the coast, near Tampa.

“When we did our briefings 72 hours before the storm on Sunday, the National Hurricane Center had this storm hitting Taylor County in north Florida. Fort Myers and Naples were not even in the cone,” DeSantis said during a news conference in St. Augustine on Friday. “So it was a situation where those folks at the local level, as that storm started to shift, then they took that data and then they acted appropriately.”

Across southwest Florida, deliveries of relief supplies were hampered by road closings. With I-75 closed, oil tankers, trucks carrying boats, and cars transporting relief workers were funneled onto one-lane streets, creating hours-long backups just to go a few miles.

Many gas stations also have been shuttered as a result of widespread power outages. Some motorists ran out of gas, leading to stalled vehicles. Fire engines and ambulances also struggled to navigate the gridlock.

For the past two nights, Darrien Harris and his wife felt like they lived on an island, as floodwater covered neighborhood streets in the city of North Port. The couple and their four children scratched aching skin covered in ant and mosquito bites.

“We are all tore up,” said Harris, 30, who said swarms of fire ants attack every time he tries to pick up a piece of debris. “Never in a million years did I think it would be this bad.”

On Saturday morning, the couple saw an opportunity to escape their home, and Darrien knew his 70-year-old mother – whose house is still surrounded by floodwater – needed oil for a generator required to operate her breathing machine.

But as the couple and their children drove to find oil, their car ran out of gas, stranding them in a parking lot under Florida’s blazing sun. They called a friend to bring them gas, but that person was stuck in a chaotic traffic backup after I-75 was closed. Eventually, they managed to secure the fuel.

Now that the water has receded on their neighborhood, the couple and their children – ages 15, 10, 11 and 7 – planned to sleep in a tent Saturday night in their front yard. They said it will be far cooler than sleeping indoors without power.

Rich Palmer, 66, also ran out of gas after a trip that usually takes him 20 minutes lasted nearly two hours. “It’s going to take at least year for us to get back to normal,” Palmer said. “And in some sections, it’s going to take a lot, lot longer.”

In Venice, Sam Sinnett battled the traffic to check on his church. The church was spared but he worried about the effect that chaos on the interstate was going to have on efforts to reach people in need.

“This will just slow the relief effort,” Sinnett said. “We have friends who have no power, no water, and everything in their freezer is going bad.”

The storm packed a second punch after it made landfall in South Carolina. Although no deaths have been reported in the state, some residents are also assessing the damage and hoping to resume normalcy.

Bill Ruff, who has only been living in his home on the inlet Pawleys Island for six weeks, evacuated his quadriplegic son and his wife 60 miles inland to Lake City on Friday morning. They returned Saturday to find four feet of water had invaded his carport. The boardwalk from the backyard to the dock had been pulled away from the shoreline, and the dock itself was missing.

In Florida, David Muench’s family has lived on Sanibel Island since the 1960s and has never seen the kind of storm surge that flooded the barrier island this week.

“We’ve heard about it, we know we were always warned about it, talked about it, but we never saw it,” Muench said. “We never saw it like this, until now.”

He said his family’s three homes all had been damaged, especially his parents’ house, but vowed to return and rebuild the properties soon.

“This is a big part of living in Florida,” he said. “This is living on the Gulf Coast. You have to expect that this is the type of event that could take place during your lifetime. And for me, this is the storm of my lifetime.”