By Nouran Salahieh, CNN
After Hurricane Ian obliterated communities in Florida, rescue crews going door to door in search of survivors are reporting more deaths, and residents grappling with loss are facing a long, daunting recovery.
As of Tuesday, at least 109 people have been reported killed by the hurricane in the United States, with 105 of those deaths in Florida and 55 of them in Lee County. The Florida Medical Examiners Commission reported a death in Martin County, an additional death in Manatee County and an additional death in Sarasota County attributed to Hurricane Ian, according to a news release from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Ian also claimed the lives of four people in North Carolina.
The storm slammed into Florida as a furious Category 4 hurricane last Wednesday. Days later, some residents of island communities are cut off from the mainland, hundreds of thousands of people are without power and many Floridians have found themselves homeless.
As of Tuesday evening, about 400,573 customers in Florida were without power, according to PowerOutage.us. Many outages remain in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties, with 208,263 outages in Lee County and 75,721 outages in Charlotte County. Outages also continue to be tracked in Sarasota, Manatee, Collier, Hendry, Hardee, and Desoto counties.
In some cases, government officials dealing with recovery efforts are among those who lost their homes.
Fort Myers Beach City Councilman Bill Veach said his 90-year-old cottage is in ruins, with only one section that was a recent addition left standing. Pieces of his home were found two blocks away, he said.
“When you are walking around the ruins, it’s an apocalyptic scene,” Veach said of his neighborhood.
Still, even in the wreckage, there have been moments of hope, he said.
“You see a friend that you weren’t sure was alive or dead and that brings you joy. A joy that is so much more than the loss of property,” he added.
Rescuers have been coming to the aid of trapped residents via boat and aircraft. Statewide, more than 2,300 rescues have been made and over 1,000 urban search and rescue personnel have checked 79,000 structures, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference Tuesday. The governor also announced the opening of the first Disaster Recovery Center — or “one-stop shop” — in Fort Myers for residents and businesses that have been affected by Hurricane Ian.
Some residents who were anxiously waiting to hear from their loved ones have received unimaginable news.
Stacy Verdream told CNN she and her brother found out Monday their uncle, Mike Verdream, died in the storm. Mike Verdream decided to ride out Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Florida, and planned to go to his boss’ two-story home if things got too bad.
Stacy Verdream said she spoke with her uncle briefly on Wednesday. Her cousin spoke with him later that day and he said the water was 4 feet deep before telling her he had to go.
“It was a very brief call because he said he was very scared and she’d never heard him like that, because he wasn’t that type of person. He’s always put on a brave face,” Stacy Verdream said. “But she said he sounded absolutely terrified.”
The family was unable to reach Mike Verdream because his phone was wet, his niece said. A detective told Stacy Verdream on Tuesday that her uncle was found in a canal on Friday. The condition of his body was consistent with other victims that had been recovered, Verdream said. Authorities used medical records to identify her uncle because his face was not recognizable, Verdream said. An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday.
“He was always there for me growing up, teaching me how to drive and taking me to the fair,” she said. “The cool uncle that would buy me like a dirt bike and bought the Jet ski for us to, like, go out on the lake. He just loved us to death.”
Elizabeth McGuire’s family said they last spoke with her Wednesday and had been having trouble reaching her. They learned Friday that the 49-year-old had been found dead in her Cape Coral home.
Police told her family she died in her bed holding her cell phone and it looked like she died instantly, her son Andrew Chedester said.
McGuire’s mother, Susan McGuire, said the destruction of the storm “is massive.”
“One hundred blizzards will not cost you what one hurricane will cost you,” said Susan McGuire, who moved to Florida from Maryland a few years ago. “My husband’s business whipped out, my daughter is dead … I never had a blizzard take anything away from me.”
Homes are ‘unlivable’ on islands cut off from the mainland, with ‘alligators running around’
On Sanibel Island, now cut off from the Florida peninsula after Ian wiped out a portion of the roadway connecting them, every house shows damage, Sanibel Fire Chief William Briscoe said.
“There are a lot of places that are not livable. There are places off their foundation, and it’s very dangerous out there,” Briscoe said. “There are alligators running around, and there are snakes all over the place.”
Crews have evacuated 1,000 people from Sanibel since Ian ripped through the island, Briscoe said.
Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith told CNN Tuesday that residents will be allowed back on the island Wednesday to assess the damage to their property, but the island is still “extremely unsafe.”
“Roads are 90% clear on the island … meaning that there’s enough vehicular access that has been cut through the debris so vehicles and employees servicing the island can get through,” Dana Souza, Sanibel city manager, said.
Sanibel remains under a 24-hour curfew. Tomorrow, residents and business owners can access the island between 7 a.m. and 7p.m., Souza said. The National Guard will work with police to enforce checkpoints throughout the island, making sure that only those with a resident ID or hurricane pass are onsite.
“We’re only allowing people who are Sanibel residents, business owners or property owners, back on the island and you must have those credentials. If you don’t have them, they will ask you to leave,” Souza said.
A similar situation is playing out on nearby Pine Island, the largest barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Just days ago, it was a tranquil fishing and kayaking destination known for its small-town atmosphere. Now it’s a scene of carnage, with cracked roadways and destroyed homes.
Ian destroyed the only bridge to Pine Island, making it only accessible by boat or aircraft. Supplies are now being airdropped to the island by helicopter as some residents choose to stay, authorities said.
County officials are trying to get a temporary ferry service for Sanibel, Sheriff Carmine Marceno said Tuesday. For Pine Island, work is underway to install a temporary bridge, with a goal to have it ready by the end of the week, DeSantis has said.
Emergency physician Dr. Ben Abo, who joined rescuers on Pine Island, said crews are encountering residents who were in denial the storm would hit the area and are now running out of supplies.
“I’m seeing a lot of despair, but I’m also seeing hope,” Abo said. “I’m seeing urban search and rescue, fire rescue, bringing hope to people that we’re going to get through this. But we have to do it in stages.”
The National Guard will also be flying power crews to Sanibel and Pine islands to start working on restoring power. It could take at least a month to restore power for some places on those islands, Lee County Electric Cooperative spokesperson Karen Ryan said Tuesday.
DeSantis said Tuesday he has already visited Pine Island and will likely visit Sanibel Island Wednesday, one week after it was ravaged by Hurricane Ian.
“We’re gonna have that bridge patched this week,” DeSantis said Tuesday of Pine Island. “Yesterday we had 130 (Florida Department of Transportation) trucks that were there working to get this temporary bridge fixed. It will be done this week.”
DeSantis also directed the state’s transportation department to prioritize the repair of the Sanibel Causeway. A contract for the repair was awarded Tuesday with the end goal of having the causeway fully repaired by the end of the month, according to a news release.
Right now, emergency repairs to the causeway will help first responders and emergency services access the barrier island to aid with recovery efforts, power restoration, and removal of debris. Long-term repairs will follow, giving residents “drivable” access to and from the mainland.
“The Sanibel Causeway was affected when the land that the road was built on was washed away,” FDOT Secretary Jared Perdue said in a statement. “A bridge stability analysis will be performed, and repairs needed range from repairing bridge approaches to restoring the roadway across most of the causeway.”
At Fort Myers Beach, where storm surge and wind combined to wipe out numerous homes and businesses, it may also take a month to restore power due to damage to the electrical infrastructure,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said.
As rescue efforts continue, it’s unclear how many are still missing
It’s unclear how many people remain unaccounted for after the storm. Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said authorities are working to consolidate a list of the missing.
Search teams have been combing a 7-mile stretch of Fort Myers Beach for days, looking for anyone still in need of help. One of the teams, South Florida Task Force 2, found 150 people trapped in homes in its first 48 hours in the community, some of whom had ascended to attics to avoid floodwater, it said.
On Monday, the team still was helping people off the island town, as well as telling them where to get food and water. The team has found people who died at Fort Myers Beach, but it has not said how many.
Bob and Rosemary Kopsack were among those the team helped off the island Monday, after the storm ruined virtually everything inside their home. Bob Kopsack still didn’t know the fate of at least one of their friends on the island.
“Our best friend, we have not been able to contact him … and he’d said he’s not leaving the island. And I hope he did,” he said. “His phone’s out. … I’ve sent the police over to his home.”
In Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Fort Meyers Beach, more than half the schools had at least some damage from Ian — and 14% had major damage, the school district said. Schools will reopen as quickly as possible, Superintendent Christopher Bernier said, without providing a timeline.
At Fort Myers Beach Elementary, mud lined a cafeteria; damaged desks, toppled supplies and other debris were piled up in a hallway; and water marks reached nearly to the tops of doorjambs, photos released by the district showed.
Charlotte County Public Schools will be closed until further notice, according to spokesperson Mike Riley, who said that several of their 22 schools have been damaged by the storm.
Riley said the district is having all the buildings inspected to make sure everything is safe before students and staff return.
“The storm lasted here for over 12 hours, just hammering away. Nothing is safe right now,” he said.
A Fort Myers man clung to branches for hours — and his daughters thought him lost
Some residents who lost property and belongings are recounting narrow escapes.
When Ian hit Florida’s west coast and floodwater surged through Fort Myers, Stan Pentz, 69, texted his daughter, Stephanie Downing, and told her the water was rising in his condo and he might drown. Then, he lost phone service, he told CNN on Tuesday.
More than an hour away, Downing assumed the worst. When she saw her sister the next day, “we just held each other and we just cried because we truly thought he was gone.”
Pentz managed to get out, however. Upon escaping his home, he was “swished away,” he recalled, and he latched onto some branches, clinging to them for hours, “with the wind blowing and the water gushing over my head. It was a long time.” After a while. the wind and water shifted and he reached the second floor of a building, where he huddled in a corner till sunrise, he said.
“It just kept going and going. It wouldn’t stop and I was just thinking about my kids and my grandkids and just everybody I know, and they just kept me going in my mind,” he said.
The storm passed, and Pentz found someone to text Downing for him. Downing’s sister and brother-in-law drove down to Fort Myers and retrieved him.
When Downing finally saw her dad, “I laid my head on his chest and I said, ‘Hey, Michael Phelps, you had a nice swim,'” she recalled as Pentz chuckled, playfully pantomiming slapping his daughter.
Pentz lost everything. He kicked his own submerged automobile as he swam to safety, he said. Downing said he’s now staying with her family at their Rotonda West home. A GoFundMe has raised thousands and a generous friend brought her dad some clothes and shoes. He was able to replace his cell phone and driver’s license Tuesday, Downing said.
“We’re getting somewhere,” she said.
Man says he moved through nearly half a mile of floodwater to rescue his mother
A Naples man, meanwhile, trekked through nearly half a mile of floodwater to save his 85-year-old mother after Ian hit.
Johnny Lauder, a former police officer, told CNN he sprang into action after his mother, who uses a wheelchair, called in a panic and said water was rushing into her home and reaching her chest.
He arrived at her home to find her neck-deep in floodwater, but happy to see her son.
“The water was up to the windows, and I heard her screaming inside,” Lauder said. “It was a scare and a sigh of relief at the time — a scare thinking she might be hurt, a sigh of relief knowing that there was still air in her lungs.”
Lauder was able to bring his mother to safety as floodwaters began to recede.
Hospitals in Florida have been experiencing “significant pressure” on capacity since Ian hit, said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
Emergency departments have sustained damage, staffing has been impacted as many hospital workers have been displaced or lost their vehicles in the hurricane, and facilities lost reliable access to water.
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CNN’s Amir Vera, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Amanda Musa, Amy Simonson, Christina Zdanowicz, Randi Kaye, Amanda Watts, Jason Hanna, Jamiel Lynch, Carma Hassan, Naomi Thomas, Nadia Romero and Jaide Garcia contributed to this report.