Feeling increasingly isolated in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Fort Myers Beach residents and renters continued to exit their devastated island on foot Sunday, four days after a 10-foot storm surge driven by 150 mph winds inundated Southwest Florida’s coastal communities.
All access to Estero Island from bridges on its south and north ends has been blocked by Lee County Sheriff’s deputies to prevent vehicles and visitors from interfering with search and rescue efforts. A growing fleet of bulldozers and dump trucks is clearing debris. Mounds of mud line Estero Boulevard, as people trickle out from their homes or buildings where they sought shelter wearing backpacks and towing suitcases filled with belongings they could salvage.
More who survived on six-mile long Estero Island are realizing it’s not feasible to stay in the place Gov. Ron DeSantis referred to as “ground zero.” They have no power, no water, no cellphone service and no idea when those will be restored.
“We’re alive. That makes us luckier than some of our neighbors, and we’re thankful,” said Craig Ruke, who lives on the second floor of a stilt house on Anchorage Drive. “But we’re tired, dirty and hungry. We have no running water. We’re going to run out of food that hasn’t rotted already. We’re going to get dehydrated. Our cars are ruined. We haven’t had any water or food delivered to the area.
“Everyone on this island is cut off.”
Rescue crews were going street by street, doing a methodical grid search of what was left of the town’s grid. As the state’s death toll rose to about 85, Lee County accounted for about half — 42 — according to Sheriff Carmine Marceno. Most died by drowning. People speculated there could be many more bodies buried under debris or carried away by high waters.
Hundreds of houses — mostly older, wood-frame houses and charming cottages — were shoved by the surge 50 to 300 yards from where they had originally stood, plowing into others along the way. They were crushed, reduced to piles of rubble with only an occasional AC duct or washing machine or patch of roof or snarled deck to mark them. One beachfront house still had a second-story closet intact, with clothing still hanging from the rod.
“People don’t realize the scope of destruction until they emerge from their homes,” said Miami Fire Rescue and Florida Task Force 2 Public Information Officer Iggy Carroll. ”Then they understand there’s no way to sustain themselves here.”
Newer, sturdier houses and multi-story buildings weathered the storm, some with minimal damage on the upper floors, others with windows and doors blown out. Cars, trucks and motorcycles did not fare well. Some were submerged in canals and swimming pools, others buried in the thick muck that covers everything. The skeletal frame of an abandoned RV jutted into Estero Boulevard.
“These vehicles are of no use because they are waterlogged,” Carroll said as he drove past a Fort Myers Beach fire station, pointing to its trucks sitting in the garage. Carroll was driving one of Miami’s specially modified high-water Ford SUVs. “We learned in Miami how to construct vehicles that can maneuver through inundated places.”
There were a handful of mini relief stations popping up along the side of the road that people set up on their own. They placed bottled water and snacks on tables, covered by battered beach umbrellas. But there were no aid distribution centers on the island. No mobile units handing out necessities.
Jerry and Sharyn Kohart, retirees from Indiana, stayed in their sixth-floor beachfront condo during Ian and watched their neighbors’ refrigerator and furniture drift by.
”The water came in waves and waves and wouldn’t leave,” Jerry said. “The building shook. Charley buzzed through on an identical path but Charley was nothing compared to Ian.”
Of their Sanderac condo building’s 93 residents, seven decided to ride it out. By the time the forecast track moved south from Tampa, then Sarasota, then Punta Gorda just to the north of them, it was too late to leave, they said. And, based on what they described as the false alarm of 2017’s Irma, when nothing much happened, they figured they would be OK. It was an example of “cry wolf” syndrome cited by others who chose not to evacuate.
In retrospect, they were foolish, they said. They had the means to evacuate when the order was issued Tuesday to their son’s high-rise apartment in downtown Fort Myers and didn’t.
“For some people with medical problems or a lack of transportation or no place to go, evacuation is not an option,” Jerry said. “We thought we could handle a 5-foot storm surge but obviously underestimated the warnings and got hit with a towering, treacherous storm surge. It came all the way up to the third floor. It stalled right on top of us for hours. The building was shaking. The shutters sounded like they’d break. We were scared.”
Will they return? Said Sharyn: “I said goodbye to our condo. Maybe they’ll tear it down.”
Betsy Mangan, 77, also stayed on the island. She saw houses carried away in the raging water, with people inside them.
“I doubt people who got caught in the water could survive,” said Mangan, who said she fell in love with Fort Myers Beach when she first visited 22 years ago and was glad she retired to the island town of 5,600 year-round residents. She was getting a ride to her nephew’s house on the mainland. “There was a powerful current. It was wild water.”
The question of whether to rebuild was starting to sink in.
“I don’t know if it’s worth it, if it’s even possible,” said Steven Light, owner of the demolished Cigar Hut. He described riding out the storm in a building that “was shaking like a sailboat in rough seas.” He was able to find his girlfriend, who had taken refuge in a condo on Lovers’ Key, a natural gem shorn to stubs. “This was a beautiful park, one of the most visited in the state — or used to be.”