Hurricane Ian Leaves Trapped Florida Residents Pleading for Rescue as Death Toll Climbs




Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty  

The full scale of the disaster unleashed by Hurricane Ian on Florida began to emerge Thursday after catastrophic flooding trapped residents in their homes, destroyed bridges and other critical infrastructure, and left over 2 million people without power.

The fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. when measured by wind speed, Ian tore into the Southwest Florida coast on Wednesday afternoon with violent gales, an epic storm surge, and as much as a foot of rain dropped over some areas.

At first light on Thursday morning, emergency crews were beginning to reckon with the monumental devastation left in Ian's wake, as homes were ripped from their foundations and public buildings damaged.

Brenda Brennan sits next to a boat that pushed against her apartment in Fort Myers.
Brenda Brennan sits next to a boat that pushed against her apartment in Fort Myers.  

"I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds," Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told Good Morning America Thursday. "There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued."

Marceno later walked back those figures, telling CNN, "I don't know the exact numbers, it's very preliminary," noting that confirmed fatalities in Lee County stood as "roughly five." The death t0ll is expected to rise, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told MSNBC.

In Deltona, a 72-year-old man died overnight when he went outside during the storm to drain his pool, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office said in a news release. The victim's wife told police her husband disappeared after leaving their home. Deputies first found the man's flashlight, then discovered him unresponsive in a nearby canal.

"The initial investigation indicates the victim was using a hose to drain the pool down a hill and into a 30-foot-wide canal, where a steep decline into the water was extremely soft and slippery due to the heavy rain," the release stated.

A lower-level emergency room at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte was flooded as brutal winds tore part of the roof from the building's intensive care unit, the Associated Press reports. Staff had to evacuate patients on ventilators to other floors as water washed into the ICU.

More water-related hospital evacuations may yet be on the way.

"We know there's nine hospitals in Lee County that the state is looking at right now to determine whether or not we're going to be able to get water restored to them, or whether or not they're going to have to be evacuated," Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said on Morning Joe Thursday. "They have no water," she added.

Other emergency services reported heartbreaking difficulties during the peak of the storm. In Fort Myers, first responders took calls from residents trapped in their flooded houses, or from concerned relatives who hadn't heard from their loved ones, but conditions prevented rescue efforts being launched.

"We are aware of a number of calls from people stranded due to high water," Lee County Public Safety Director Ben Abes said late Wednesday, the News-Press reports. "However, we are faced with conditions that make it impossible to respond right now."

Stedi Scuderi looks over her flooded apartment in Fort Myers.
Stedi Scuderi looks over her flooded apartment in Fort Myers.  

Some even posted desperate pleas for help on social media, along with terrifying descriptions of their homes filling up with flood water.

"My brother, Chip Aldridge, and his girlfriend, Suzanne Merlot, lost everything today when the storm surge from Hurricane Ian flooded their apartment in Naples, Florida," Julie Hittle posted on GoFundMe. "As their refrigerator floated across their living room in four feet of dirty water, they escaped out a window and climbed to safety on top of their car, taking only their beloved cocker spaniel, Kobie, and one plastic bin of important papers and keepsakes. Everything else, including furniture, clothes and household items, was destroyed. They were rescued by a kind stranger paddling down the road in a kayak who dropped them on a covered sidewalk."

Drew Hittle, Chip's nephew, told The Daily Beast that the couple work in a grocery store and don't have much of a financial cushion to fall back on. After fleeing their home, Chip and Suzanne eventually got to a La Quinta Inn "which let them stay because they had nowhere else to go," Hittle said. "They're in a shelter now, camped out there while they're trying to figure it out."

Scott Mayer, who lives in Key West, sustained severe water damage during the storm.

"It was a really rough. Scary doesn't begin to describe it, but we're all safe, so gotta keep [our] chin up," he told The Daily Beast, adding that he is spending the day "cleaning flood damage up from our apartment."

Courtesy Scott Mayer
Courtesy Scott Mayer  

For Tyler Martin, the hurricane destroyed the house sailboat he had been restoring and living on for five years. He nervously hunkered down at a nearby hotel as the storm approached and, when he went back a few hours later, he realized there was no saving his boat or all the belongings inside.

"When you spend so much time with a boat like that it takes on a life of its own. It's like a dog, you know, like a part of the family. So it felt like I left my dog in the rain," he told The Daily Beast, adding that he only had a suitcase of clothes with him.

"I'm alive and I can rebuild, that's the most important thing. But it's devastating for sure," said Martin, 38, whose friend set up a GoFundMe to help him start over.

Rescue attempts will be hindered on Thursday by roads being completely submerged or blocked with downed trees and power lines. A large section of the causeway leading to Sanibel has been completely washed away by the hurricane, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In Naples, extreme flooding has made over half of the streets "not passable due to high water," Collier County officials announced Thursday.

No deaths associated with Ian were reported by Thursday, but officials already fear the worst.

"Our community has been, in some respects, decimated," Lee County Manager Roger DesJarlais said late Wednesday, according to WGCU. He added that while no deaths were yet confirmed, it was "reasonable to think" that "there could be some fatalities."

The horrendous wind and rain spread up to Central Florida, leaving parts of Orlando without power and under water. "Lakes are swelling and roads have been converted into rivers," state Rep. Anna Eskamani told The Daily Beast on Thursday. "While evacuations are taking place the impact for us in Central Florida is nowhere near what we've witnessed in Southwest Florida. My heart aches for our state and we are committed to healing and rebuilding together."

The areas with the most damage are "basically off the grid" at this point, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday morning, noting that it may take months to rebuild the power grid in the counties of Lee and Charlotte. The Florida National Guard is deploying search-and-rescue choppers to barrier islands where flooding is extensive and bridges are out, he said.

'Catastrophic' Ian Makes Landfall in Florida as One of the Most Powerful Hurricanes Ever

Ian made landfall at 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday near Cayo Costa-an island off Fort Myers-as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds. Early Thursday, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Ian to a tropical storm, warning that danger of "life-threatening storm surge" will remain through Friday along the northeast coast of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Flooding is expected in the three states until the end of next week.

Just as Cuba's power was wiped out when Ian hit the island, Florida was similarly blighted by blackouts during the storm. Over 2.5 million customers were plunged into darkness, according to tracking site PowerOutage.us.

Airports have canceled hundreds of flights on Thursday, with the Southwest Florida International Airport and Orlando International Airport pulling all of its scheduled operations.

DeSantis has asked President Joe Biden to approve a major disaster relief declaration to provide aid to the state. "This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida," DeSantis said. Speaking during a Fox News appearance Wednesday night, he said the storm would bring "one of the biggest flood events we've ever had. What remains to be seen is how much damage the wind did. Obviously it's very significant."

In response to the near-unthinkable destruction, U-Haul is offering a month of free self-storage at 43 locations to Florida residents. For those in need of food, Feeding Tampa Bay is providing fresh produce, bottled water, and prepared meals to all. Uber is giving away free round-trip rides, up to $30 each way, to and from any state-approved evacuation center, with the code IANRELIEF. And anyone impacted by Ian can schedule free telehealth visits through Florida Blue-even non-members-by calling 855-225-5032.

The storm is expected to barrel up the East Coast on Thursday, with Georgia and possibly the Carolinas in its path.

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