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Section of Sanibel Causeway wiped out by Hurricane Ian

On the ground in southwest Florida, a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer bring eyewitness accounts.
A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel in Lee County was knocked out by Hurricane Ian. [ Douglas R. Clifford | Times ]

Photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford and I left our hotel room in Fort Myers late Wednesday night and have been searching the area and assessing the damage from Hurricane Ian.

A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel is gone, wiped out by the powerful Category 4 storm.

Related: Friday live updates: Florida recovers as Hurricane Ian targets Carolinas

Here are our dispatches from Lee County:

4:04 p.m.: Residents stunned by the losses

Fort Myers residents returned to begin surveying the damage. Many were still in shock.

“Things aren’t adding up right now,” one resident said.

11:52 a.m.: “There’s barely anything left”

In Fort Myers Beach, emergency officials expect to find bodies in the rubble. They know people did not all heed the evacuation orders, which began Monday. Jennifer Campbell, the local fire marshall, walked through town with a colleague Thursday, surveying the damage and shutting off gas lines.

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“Absolute devastation,” she said. “There’s barely anything left.”

4:15 a.m.: Section of causeway to Sanibel is wiped out

An alarm bleats endlessly at the tollbooth for the Sanibel Causeway. Step just beyond it, and the road soon gives way. Where the bridge rises from the mainland toward the island, one of the first sections of the span has disappeared. Crumbled pavement lies near the water’s edge. The rest of the bridge stretches forward, unreachable.

2 a.m.: Pavement leading to Sanibel folded up like an accordion

JUST BEFORE THE SANIBEL CAUSEWAY — Under the toll plaza sign — 1/2 a mile out — McGregor Road to Sanibel Island is impassable.

The pavement is 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.

Related: WATCH: Lee County sheriff’s video from air shows devastated areas from Hurricane Ian

Sand was strewn in sheets across the pavement — sea bottom on solid land. Waves lapped at the shore, just steps away.

Two cars tried to pass out to the island about 1:30 a.m., including a group of young men hoping to reach their friend.

They had to turn around.

The pavement just before the causeway to Sanibel is folded up like an accordion, ripped to ribbons by a powerful storm surge.
[ Douglas R. Clifford | Times ]
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Just before the Sanibel Causeway, a spiral staircase was deposited in the brush next to a white pickup as Hurricane Ian went through the area.
[ Doug Clifford ]

12:30 a.m.: Downtown Fort Myers badly flooded

FORT MYERS — Building alarms blared through the wind still rustling downtown shortly before midnight. Shin-high, gray water rippled down First Street outside the United States Courthouse. Small pieces of trash drifted in the current.

One store off First Street suffered a shattered front window. A dress hung in the display, flapping in the wind. Nearby, what might have been chunks of a seawall lay along the road — hulking pieces of foam covered with a hard exterior, scarred by barnacles.

Businesses in downtown Fort Myers suffered damage from Hurricane Ian.
[ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A few pickup trucks were stuck on the road out to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. One of the drivers had boats to check on.

The water was still too high.

Water still filled some streets in neighborhoods off McGregor Boulevard, southwest of the city center. It drifted halfway up the poles of white mailboxes.

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Businesses in downtown Fort Myers suffered damage from Hurricane Ian.
[ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A few houses shone out of complete blackness, generators humming.

Felled branches — and some whole trees — littered the lawns.

Some downtown blocks had power, strange aberrations with bright lights — a few empty bars, a house of pizza.

A pickup truck navigates a flooded section of First Street outside of the United States Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers on Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022, where storm surge continued to inundate Lee County long after the eye wall passed into central Florida.
[ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

10 p.m.: ‘It was just blasting us for hours.’

CAPE CORAL — Hours after Hurricane Ian made landfall near Caya Costa, this city that once rose improbably from wetlands was pitch black Wednesday night.

Related: Wednesday live updates: Hurricane Ian punishes Florida with devastating winds, storm surge

John Renas, 42, surveyed his yard with two of his children, their headlamps darting over knee-high floodwater.

”It was just blasting us for hours,” said Renas, who has lived in the area since he was 16.

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Brianna Renas, 17, inspects a fallen palm tree outside her home at Santa Barbara Boulevard and SE 39th Street Terrace in Cape Coral after riding out Hurricane Ian with her family on Wednesday in Cape Coral.
[ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

They never really considered evacuating for Ian, he said.

The surge climbed to the edge of their house at the corner of Santa Barbara Boulevard and SE 39th Terrace. The wind was equally terrifying, shaking and lifting the eaves.

Related: Photos show the devastating impact of Hurricane Ian

For hours, Renas said, it felt like the wind was going to suck out the doors. He held onto one, he said, and his son, Zak Irwin, clutched the other.

”The howling, just something I’ll never forget,” Renas said.

”Like cars revving their engines,” said daughter Brianna Renas, 17.

”Or a plane flying overhead,” Irwin said.

A displaced boat sits beside the roadway in the southeast corner of Cape Coral on Wednesday night as the winds of Hurricane Ian continue to buffet the flood-soaked streets.
[ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Renas said his 12-year-old daughter was having fun at first, treating shelter-in-place like a camping trip. Then she looked outside and saw the floodwaters creeping closer. She started to cry.

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Murky brown seawater still soaked their front and side yards around 9:30 p.m. It lapped against a toppled palm tree, beside which Renas’ daughter usually waits for the school bus.

Related: ‘I’m hoping he shows up’: Pine Island community grapples with Ian’s aftermath

About 100 yards up the street, a white car lay abandoned in the road, water up to the floorboards.

”Next time they tell us to evacuate,” Renas said, “I’ll leave.”

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

ROAD CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads as Hurricane Ian approaches.

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

Photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford and I left our hotel room in Fort Myers late Wednesday night and have been searching the area and assessing the damage from Hurricane Ian.

A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel is gone, wiped out by the powerful Category 4 storm.

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