Our best bet was to stick to the backroads, winding through orange groves, Mosaic phosphate pits, pastures and other large agricultural operations. We crisscrossed through Lithia up to Fort Lonesome, Duette, Wauchula and Brownville in hopes of reaching homes reported to be washed away or underwater along the Peace River in Arcadia.
The National Weather Service was projecting that the Peace River would crest at about 23 feet Friday afternoon, breaking the previous record high of 20.55 feet set during a storm in 1912.
But our plan got us as far as Brownville, an unincorporated community in DeSoto County about six miles northeast of the city of Arcadia.
These photos were taken from NW Brownville Street, which was wiped out by what appears to be runoff water from farms.
All roads leading into Arcadia on Friday seemed to be flooded out — but not by the Peace River.
The orange groves that line the roads in and around Arcadia bent in unison to the right or left, mapping the trail Hurricane Ian blazed through the inland farming community. Train tracks along the road had been pulled up from the ground.
By Friday afternoon, the only person who had managed to drive through the strong currents blocking County Road 661 was Lenny Lempenau. He owns the Peace River Campground and had been shuttling supplies to rescue workers in his green, military-issued Hummer.
Lempenau said he doesn’t know of many people still trapped in homes. He said it seemed like the flooding here was much more gradual than at the coastline, giving people time to gather belongings and get out when stormwater began pooling around their doors.
Most of Friday’s focus was on those who decided to stay in their homes along the riverbank. Those houses are used to flooding and are built on stilts to accommodate an annual occurrence with Florida’s weather.
Hurricane Ian, though, was not normal. Exactly how many were still stuck in their homes was unclear as of Friday.
The ground in this part of Florida isn’t absorbent like regular soil. Instead, a combination of dirt and sand sits atop a hard clay ridge that separates it from a bedrock of porous limestone. In many places, that limestone contains Florida’s aquifer, though in others it’s riddled with hollow caverns like a chocolate Easter bunny. That’s why sinkholes become a fairly common and widespread problem when the ground that covers that porous, limescale base becomes oversaturated with water.
Because of Florida’s naturally flat landscape, and the development boom in recent years, flooding has become a more regular occurrence even in inland communities such as Arcadia because the rain simply has nowhere to go.
Rescue efforts in Arcadia quickly became a complicated affair requiring first responders and residents to work together, navigating both the flooded-out access roads and the overlapping response to reach those in need.
James Robinson, an aeromedical pilot with Metro Aviation, came with his own airboat trailer to help carry airboats for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers. They slowly but surely made their way to the homes along the Peace River, using residential backyards to launch boats and reach access points on the other side of the bank.
“We have a majority of our aircraft back in service, so that’s good, and they’re working them to death,” Robinson said.
But where do they take those rescued by the storm?
“Frankly, I don’t really know,” he said.
There was no shortage of trained rescue workers, but coordinating which agency was coming to the rescue was yet another roadblock.
Police scanners crackled with chaos. There were telephone poles on fire and reports from callers who smelled possible gas leaks. A woman and child were reportedly stuck in a flooded home by the river and had been posting on Facebook that they needed help. As first responders began to mobilize there was a change of plans — a good Samaritan had seen the posts and rescued the woman and child on their own, dispatchers said.
There was a man in a nearly inaccessible home who needed medical attention after three days without his dialysis treatments. He didn’t want to leave his family, and they didn’t want to let him go until they knew where he would be taken. The emergency operators said they didn’t know for sure — maybe the Peace River Campground until they could find a special-needs shelter.
By mid-afternoon Friday, a military Black Hawk helicopter could be seen circling the area. And as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers tried to work out logistics, Robinson pointed out two large, black helicopters to his wife as they hovered overhead.
They were Chinook military helicopters, he explained — the big ones with two propellers each.
“Those are the ones that do the heavy lifts, so they’ll be carrying water and supplies or dropping troops on the ground,” Robinson said. “They’ve been dropping National Guard troops all over the place, but I think they got most everybody out last night.”
By 2:45 p.m., the Peace River had surpassed flood projections from the National Weather Service by at least one foot. The water level in the river was 23.9 feet and rising, with the flood stage at 11 feet. The historic high for the river was a crest of 10.55 feet in 1912.
State Road 70, the main access road for communities around Arcadia, was sliced into small, stranded segments by road closure signs.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath
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.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.