It wasn’t just the coastline, though it took most of the blow.
As Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, the beach towns were the first to go as water and winds up to 150 mph decimated paradise towns from Fort Myers Beach to Punta Gorda — a city familiar with disaster, taking close to a decade to recover from 2004′s Hurricane Charley.
Houses were torn from foundations by water that acted as a conveyor belt. Personal belongings and building materials fused with wet earth.
But the wrecked beach towns marked only the beginning.
An hour northeast of Fort Myers, in rural inland communities like Arcadia, the extent of the damage began to reveal itself Friday.
The trunks in the orange groves bend to the right or left, mapping the trail of the storm that blazed through the farming community.
Train tracks along a road were picked up by the storm, twisted and turned, and pulled up from the ground.
And then there was the flooding.
Roads leading into the town, where the median household income is about $34,000 and more than 30% of the population lives in poverty, were shredded as though they were made of cardboard instead of concrete. Trailers and homes were submerged.
An hour north in Lithia, residents braced for their turn. By Friday evening, the Alafia River splashed against the bottoms of mailboxes and obscured chain-link fences on the side streets off Lithia Pinecrest Road. And the water was still rising.
Lithia residents were prepared: The river floods regularly in hard summer rains, and after Hurricane Irma, the neighborhood was entirely inundated. People had their cars parked out by the main road; some went to and from their homes by canoe or kayak.
“They know it’s coming” in this kind of weather, said Mike Zeman, a River Drive resident for 50 years. He’d pulled his recreational vehicle near the top of the road, and the water lapped at its tires. “If they don’t, they better. I’ve been through it my whole life.”
The water level was predicted to crest Saturday morning.
‘I am preparing for them to be homeless.’
Florida’s river and agricultural towns add another layer to the vast scale of destruction that started coming into sharp focus Friday around the Sunshine State.
But the beach towns, where storm surge reached catastrophic levels and hundreds of thousands are still without power, remained Ground Zero.
As search and rescue efforts continued Friday morning — and the death toll grew — dazed homeowners and the loved ones of those affected tried to grapple with all that had been destroyed.
Phoebe Gavin grew up on Sanibel Island. Now she lives in Virginia, but her parents still live in her childhood town.
“I’m preparing for them to be homeless,” Gavin said. “It’s awful.”
Gavin was on the west coast for a work trip when the Category 4 storm hit. But she said watching from afar has made her think about inequity and how it applies to evacuations.
Her parents have modest incomes — her father is a plumber, her mother cleans houses — and both are in their 70s. As the storm neared, they were able to get off Sanibel and shelter with church friends who lived in Fort Myers. It was the best they could do, but still, it was far from guaranteed safety.
Gavin said that in the days since the hurricane passed, she’s heard a lot of victim blaming, where people outside of Florida criticize those those who stayed behind.
“Evacuating isn’t easy,” Gavin said. “It requires resources. There’s a big divide economically.”
"They could have evacuated."— Phoebe the Career Coach (@betterwphoebe) September 29, 2022
"Why didn't they evacuate?"
"That's what you get for not evacuating."
As a lifelong Florida resident who grew up low-income on Sanibel Island which has been destroyed by #Ian hear me when I say this:
Evacuating is HARD.
She said she’s since heard from her parents and knows they’re physically OK. But she worries for friends and family whom she still hasn’t reached — who may not have made it off the island.
“Your ability to cope with an emergency like this is directly tied to your financial position,” Gavin said. “This is going to get worse with climate change, and it’s a complex problem.”
She said she doesn’t know what will come next for her parents. Moreover, she doesn’t know what tense to use when talking about her hometown.
“There is... or there was...” she pondered, talking about a mobile home community on the edge of the island that she used to pass by.
‘Memories might be all we have’
Up and down the southwest coast, different stories of devastation and loss played out on repeat.
Traffic clotted the roads, as many evacuated residents returned to survey the aftermath of Ian.
Outside Port Charlotte, people parked their cars on the highway and clambered into kayaks, using the shoulder’s flood waters to assess the damage of their flooded homes.
Molded mattresses, rugs, garbage bags — and in some instances, entire living rooms — lay discarded at the ends of mansion driveways on Creighton Road in downtown Naples. Sons helped fathers throw away years of possessions.
“It’s like a bomb went off,” said Steve Maichioni, 59, as he cleared out his friend’s debris-caked minivan in a Naples parking lot where he had sheltered. He removed ruined clothes, golf clubs and waterlogged books.
“It was fine until the very last hour of the hurricane — that’s when the storm surge happened.”
That’s what got Naples resident Victor Lopez. The changing forecasts, the limited time.
“The people on the news said it was going to hit Tampa,” said Lopez, 35, as he and his kids observed the damage on Naples’ downtown beachfront Friday night.
“Nobody boarded up their windows, nothing. Now, it’s going to be maybe five years before the city looks nice again.”
In Bonita Springs, a tiny blue house built in the 1970s sits on stilts between two mansions. It wasn’t supposed to be on stilts. There used to be a laundry room and a sitting area, where Rob Wolfe’s family would spend time together on vacation, but all of that was gone — washed right out like it never even existed.
He said he’s never felt peace in the way he does when sitting out on the lanai at 6 a.m. with coffee, watching the birds and the tide
“It was our happy place,” said Wolfe, who lives in West Virginia but shares the family home with siblings and his mother, who are residents of Cape Coral and Sanibel.
They purchased the beach house 11 years ago — it was a little slice of heaven, a sanctuary for family and relaxation as they grew older. Wolfe remembers Irma in 2017. Forecasts had predicted the storm would batter the community, but at the last minute it drifted.
“We got lucky,” he said.
Not this time.
“I don’t know what we’ll do. We could rebuild, but we’d have to do it to meet the new codes and I don’t know that it’s possible for us,” he said. “Memories might be all we have left there.”
Times staff writer Jack Evans contributed to this reporting.
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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.