One by one, armed with handfuls of belongings or cellphones and cameras, residents of cities along Florida's Gulf coast returned to their homes on Thursday to survey the damage.
Some of the first signs of the historic destruction left by Hurricane Ian were evident on Interstate-75 near Golden Gate, about 40 miles south of Fort Myers Thursday morning as at least 50 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission vehicles towed airboats and other watercraft, ATVs and mobile generators and bathrooms.
On Thursday afternoon, many residents set out on foot at the corner of Davis Road and McGregor Boulevard Thursday afternoon in Iona, an unincorporated area of Lee County, to walk down flooded Davis Road back to the homes that they fled earlier in the week. With water rising about knee-high in the deepest parts, people made the trek, pulling kayaks with their pets aboard.
Michele Reidy, her daughter, son, and two grandchildren evacuated from their first- and second-floor apartments on Pine Needle Lane to a hotel in Fort Myers late Wednesday morning ahead of the brunt of the hurricane reaching Lee County. Reidy and her family came back to their neighborhood Thursday morning to rescue Reidy's two cats, Mimi and Harpo, and were dragging them inside their cat carriers placed safely inside an inflatable kayak.
Reidy said she's lived in the area for nearly 30 years and not seen damage this extensive.
"This is the first time that I've ever lost everything," she said.
Even the kitchen cabinets in her daughter's first-floor apartment are gone, she said. Marks inside the apartments showed stagnant water had been sitting at least 6 feet high.
Becky Schoedel walked to the safe-haven corner of Davis Road and McGregor Boulevard with nothing. She hugged her daughter who waited there with her young son and husband.
Ian was the first Hurricane for Schoedel, who moved to Florida from Pennsylvania a year ago. She evacuated to stay with her daughter and son-in-law in north Fort Myers Tuesday morning. Her villa was in chaos when she returned to see the aftermath for the first time.
"Everything inside is trashed. Upheaved, on top of things that only an ape could lift. It was really sickening. I had to leave," she said. "I couldn't even stay in there. It was breaking my heart."
She walked down the road with water up to her knees.
Noah Warrick, 35, has lived on Heald Lane since 2014. He evacuated with his 7-year-old son Tuesday to a hotel in Naples.
"This was my first trip to see that my home is no longer livable," he said. He's in between jobs after working as a truck driver for 10 years and is now left with the immense task of finding a new home for his family.
"The first thing I noticed was the sludge on the floor," he said. "It smelled like fecal matter."
As Warrick stood on the corner, a small baby alligator swam alongside debris littering the water.
Rescues and ruins
Jonathan Strong, a Cape Coral resident who said he formerly worked in law enforcement for two years in Florida and as a volunteer firefighter in Virginia for six years, was among the volunteers helping with rescues in Iona.
"I can't just sit around while my house is intact and let other people suffer. It's what we do. Community helping community," he said.
Cassandra Fitzgerald and her husband Kyle Fitzgerald, who live in Citrus County, volunteered for the first time with Cajun Navy Relief, a nonprofit that has deployed volunteers to natural disaster sites. They arrived at a mobile home community in north Fort Myers near Tamiami Trail about 4 a.m. to start rescue operations.
Cassandra said several people they rescued needed to be hospitalized. She drove one woman to Gulf Coast hospital after Lee Memorial officials said the hospital was closed.
"This morning we had a veteran that was stuck in his house pretty much chair-bound on oxygen," Kyle said. "He spent the last 24 hours in there basically sitting on top of his sink. [Water] was four feet into his house."
The Fitzgeralds said they rescued an elderly woman in the same mobile home park who stayed home during the storm by herself; a neighbor found her floating through the flooded street.
"Shock. Disbelief. Most of them are just grateful that somebody showed up," Kyle Fitzgerald said.
"Fortunately for us we've never really had to deal with anything catastrophic and finally we're just in a position where we can offer some assistance," Kyle said about why they volunteered.
Residents who live near the Centennial Park at Fort Myers Wharf trickled into the waterfront park on the Caloosahatchee River about 10 a.m., taking pictures and videos of the destruction.
Rising waters and strong winds shoved a floating concrete dock and cement railing that lined the edge of the park about 100 yards inland. Boats of all sizes near a Joe's Crab Shack flipped over onto their sides, overturned or nearly completely swallowed by the river. Several were pushed onto land, stacked on top of each other and crushed into unrecognizable parts.
Glynn Rivers, a resident of Fort Myers since 2000, and her son Max Garramone walked along the waterfront assessing the damage. Rivers said she waited out Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Irma in Fort Myers before. But Ian was a much different experience for her, she said.
Despite living off of McGregor Boulevard, an area that was included in an evacuation zone, she stayed.
"For Charley we were new, so I was a little inexperienced. Irma wasn't bad, but this was terrible, really for 20 hours. There were waves rolling up our street. I'm lucky that my house didn't get flooded," she said.
Rivers said her previous home on the same road closer to the water was destroyed. The windows are gone, rising waters flooded at least two feet into the home, dragging furniture away and docks are now parked in peoples' yards, she said.
Rivera said her daughter works at Gulf Coast Hospital and will be there until Saturday; at the hospital, the showers, toilets and sinks are inoperable.
Chris Ulm, who moved to Fort Myers four years ago from Indiana, said he watched the rising waters from his second-story apartment window at Trident Cay on First Street near the riverfront park, second-guessing the decision not to evacuate.
"When we woke up Wednesday morning and realized the path had changed and probably coming directly for us … Did we make the right call?" Ulm said. "It was too late to get on the road ..."
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