FORT MYERS BEACH — The end times weren’t likely to come this far south. But there was a chance.
For days, forecasters had placed the spot Hurricane Ian would eventually make landfall within the cone of uncertainty. Most residents here fled.
Some didn’t. They hunkered down as best they could, flocking to sturdy buildings or upper floors. Surely, they figured, it would be safe above ground level.
Wednesday night proved some of them wrong. Daybreak on Thursday revealed devastation — more slices of salt-streaked Florida forever altered by a storm.
Those in charge struggled to offer a realistic assessment of the death toll: The Lee County sheriff told a national audience on “Good Morning America” that “hundreds” could be dead from the storm. Gov. Ron DeSantis later clarified that the sheriff’s number was an “estimate” based on emergency calls from people in flooded homes.
Later in the day, President Joe Biden told reporters the storm could be the “deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” That pronouncement is likely to prove incorrect, given Florida’s deadliest hurricane killed at least 2,500 in 1928.
Officials reported at least 17 hurricane deaths Thursday. That number is expected to increase.
With so much unaccountable and incalculable, the cataclysmic scenes in coastal towns across Southwest Florida told the story.
In Fort Myers Beach, blown-out homes blocked side streets, each an eruption of soggy wood and metal. Sand covered the main drag, Estero Boulevard, as if hurling the barrier island back in time. Emergency officials expect to find bodies in the rubble.
In Bonita Springs, multimillion-dollar homes crumbled. The streets, sidewalks and lawns were buried under at least 2 feet of wet sand and covered in a lattice of downed power lines.
And in downtown Venice, trees were uprooted, blocking roads. Business signs were blown out. Every other traffic light, broken.
Keven Behen, 60, who survived the night in Fort Myers Beach, offered his father this assessment over the phone while surveying the damage:
“The island is like somebody took an atom bomb and dropped it.”
The islands nearest the chaos of Ian’s eye were almost cut off from Florida’s mainland overnight. A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel vanished into the sea. The road to Pine Island, gone. People who chose to ride out the storm were stranded — in St. James City, Bokeelia and elsewhere.
Many of those who left haven’t been able to return to survey the damage to their homes, businesses, families.
In the early hours Wednesday morning, two cars tried to reach Sanibel, including a group of young men hoping to find their friend.
The pavement was folded up like an accordion, ripped to ribbons by a powerful storm surge. Nearby, a spiral staircase was deposited in the brush next to a white pickup. The storm flung a boat trailer and other debris, too.
They had to turn around.
Roberta Reale went to Venice Elementary School, where she teaches music, in hopes that the internet might be working. It wasn’t.
Without power, water or cell service, there was no way to see if her brother in North Port and her brother-in-law in Fort Myers were OK. Or whether her colleagues, some of whom were working at a nearby shelter, were all right.
“It’s like you’re cut off from what’s going on and everyone’s freaking out,” said Reale, 62.
Aimee Sansing, 46, tried to drive back to Pine Island at daybreak to check on her brother, who didn’t evacuate. She had not heard from him since Wednesday afternoon. A police officer she knew broke the news to her about the road she had been driving for decades. There was no way to get to her brother in Bokeelia, except by water.
Sansing saw the washout for the first time at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, clear under a bright sun and blue sky.
A Ford Focus rested just above the water, caught between chunks of grass and concrete. Waves slapped against snapped wood from broken buildings. The fronds of the palm trees all faced south.
A dead bird lay on the roadway that remained, next to snaking power lines.
“I didn’t know the extent of it until just now,” Sansing said, shaking.
Karla Quillen, 67, works in a souvenir shop on Fort Myers Beach. She said it blew away from the first floor of the Lani Kai Island Resort.
Walking down Estero Boulevard, surveying the damage just before the sun peeked out Thursday morning, she felt lucky to have only lost a bike and car. Her voice caught behind tears.
“I just can’t believe that Mother Nature would do something like this,” she said. “My God.”
With few operable roads, first responders had to launch rescue missions by air.
A Coast Guard crew, normally based in Clearwater, set out from their temporary home in West Palm Beach just a few minutes after midnight. They’d fielded a call about a man trapped near the mangroves off of Pine Island. As the hurricane winds gusted, the crew hoisted the man into the MH60 Jayhawk helicopter.
That’s when they got their second call from another vessel in distress just minutes away, also near Pine Island. Another man, another boat, this one on its side in the water. Another rescue.
For the rest of the night, the crew whistled to and fro along Florida’s west coast, pulling people from the water and transporting the rescued to hospitals. An abandoned ship near Cortez. Kayakers near Gulfport. Back to the air station in Clearwater.
By the time the night was over, flight mechanic Megan Howard and her crewmates had saved seven people — just a fraction of the 700 overnight rescues notched by first responders, according to DeSantis.
“We would be in the middle of one case and find out about the next one,” Howard said.
The residents inhabiting a glitzy enclave of Bonita Springs could see the Coast Guard helicopters making their rescue trips. Mike and Julie Walton, who played host to their children, their kids’ spouses and the couple’s 10 grandchildren in their seaside fortress on Hickory Boulevard, considered themselves lucky to have avoided such a flight.
The couple took a sizable financial hit from the storm: Two of Mike’s classic cars, valued at more than $600,000, washed out of the garage and onto the sandy beach.
But when Julie Walton fought back tears watching her grandchildren gather the little pieces of her home into a big pile in the front yard, she said she wasn’t crying over material possessions.
“I can’t even think about what could have happened last night,” she said. “Our whole family, all of our grandkids, could have been washed away.”
Amid all the uncertainty and all of the what-ifs, some in Walton’s community found moments of light.
One of the neighbors, known for enjoying his larger-than-life collection of fine scotch on the beach at sunset, chuckled when the morning light revealed his hundreds of bottles of alcohol — now strewn across the front yard.
One of the Waltons’ grandsons managed to find his grandfather’s missing garden hose in the miles of debris lining the beach.
Nobody knew who owned the green race car that suddenly appeared in a home under construction.
And as the neighbors surveyed all of the damage left behind in the aftermath of the hurricane, two couldn’t help but notice that the birds were coming back home.
Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane coverage
WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.
SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.