Editor’s note: Just shy of a year ago, Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast before sweeping across the state and up the Eastern Seaboard. Devastating destruction of property and infrastructure gave way to a jarring death toll, with Ian ultimately killing 150 Florida residents and visitors. The majority of deaths were drownings. In the week after the storm, Times reporters set out to understand the scale of the loss. This story was first published on Oct. 8, 2022. The Times has republished the story as Tropical Storm Idalia nears.
Mitch Pacyna kept his eye on the weather, even before the wind picked up, the first drops of rain fell or the floodwater rose along his street.
He’d felt safe on Fort Myers Beach, a place where he knew the bartenders, worked as a greeter at the library and watched orange sunsets with his longtime partner.
So safe, he decided to stay even as Hurricane Ian bore down. He and Mary Wojciechowski were comforted by 27 years of weathering Florida storms together and a duplex with a second story. They tied a generator to their balcony, stocked up on propane for the grill and told family and friends they were ready.
But the next 36 hours proved that no level of preparation was enough. All they could have done was leave.
As the storm drew closer, Mitch, 74, posted a video of the rain and wind to Facebook. His tone was serious. “Probably made a very bad decision to stay,” he said while he filmed.
He kept posting as water inched higher on their street, until waves rolled under a “dead end” sign.
The storm surge washed away the personal bar he built downstairs, sending his picture of famed Bears coach Mike Ditka and other Chicago sports memorabilia into the gray swell.
An hour later, Mitch posted for the last time: “OK,,WE’RE TERRIFIED !!”
Mary grabbed their wallets and her grandmother’s ring, and they headed next door to see what a neighbor thought they should do.
Then the house began to split. Their ceiling fell. They had to get out, even if it meant braving the thrashing gulf. But Mitch couldn’t swim.
Mary tried to fasten a bed sheet to hold onto him. He told her it wouldn’t help.
A rush of water pulled her from the crumbling house. She tried to swim back to Mitch. She saw the rest of the roof collapse.
He was gone.
Somehow, Mary, 64, made her way over to a broken piece of the porch and held on until the flood receded.
The next day, blue skies returned to Fort Myers Beach, and rescuers began to spot the dead. They found people bruised and tangled, some flung far from home, carried by the current.
Many had drowned.
Mary had been whisked to a hospital, then discharged to a friend’s house away from the beach and all that she loved.
About a week passed before Mary learned that firefighters found Mitch’s body 150 yards down the road from where she lost him.
Now at night, in moments of quiet reflection, she replays the choices they made and the hurricane that followed.
“Even if we left, and the house was destroyed,” Mary said, “at least I would have Mitch.”
They had so many more long walks to take, more Miller Lites to share and more Cubs games to watch. Mitch always said he’d live to be 104.
“Him and I would figure it out together,” she said. “Start from scratch, like we’ve always done.”
She knows she will always wonder: Why didn’t we leave?
The cost of staying
Many Floridians, like Mitch and Mary, made what felt like a rational decision.
They stayed because hotels were expensive, already booked or far away. They stayed because decades of hurricane experience made them sure they could ride out a storm. They stayed because leaving meant missing work. They stayed because the neighbors were, too. They stayed because they’d heard rumors there could be looters. They stayed because it was late, the roads were jammed and the gas pumps were empty.
They stayed because home felt safest.
But with every near-miss, someone gets hit. Hurricane Ian was close to a worst-case for bustling Southwest Florida. The 12-foot storm surge crashed over and over into beach towns with at least the force of a rumbling school bus.
Water, not wind, is the biggest killer in a hurricane — an essential truth that forecasters and emergency managers say Floridians struggle to understand.
More than half of the deaths from Ian have been drownings.
The epicenter of Ian’s devastation is Lee County, where the storm made landfall just shy of a Category 5 and gouged the coastline. Since 2010, that strip of Florida has added 15,000 residents per year on average, making it one of the nation’s fastest-growing metro areas despite being highly vulnerable to storm surge and challenging to evacuate.
The official death count as of Thursday stood at 92. Fifty in Lee alone.
Already, Ian has a higher death toll than hurricanes that haunt Florida’s collective memory. Andrew in 1992 left 44 people dead. Charley in 2004, 33. Irma in 2017, 84.
Ian’s toll is growing.
Coming up with an official tally takes time. After a hurricane, medical examiners must determine how people died and whether they should be counted among storm-related fatalities. Some, like drownings, are obviously connected.
Others are indirect but wouldn’t have happened without the storm: The 89-year-old whose oxygen machine was snuffed out after he lost power and his generator failed. The 75-year-old man who suffered a heart attack and paramedics couldn’t reach in time. The 73-year-old who saw the damage to his property, then shot himself.
State data show the vast majority who died were over 55. The youngest, so far, 19. The oldest 96.
The day after the storm, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden offered conflicting estimates for how many people Ian had killed. Some medical examiner’s offices have not released basic details — the names of those who died and the locations where they were found.
The uncertainty matters less on the ground, where survivors know the damage, having walked past piles of debris that entombed their friends.
As Ian cut across Florida, people died in 15 counties.
In Manatee, a woman stepped outside to smoke. A gust of wind blew her off the porch, and she knocked her head on a concrete step.
In Hardee, a river current swept away a vehicle with a 25-year-old man inside.
In Volusia, rescuers scrambled to reach a list of people who needed help escaping. A 67-year-old man drowned before they could arrive.
An inescapable surge
Hurricane survivors say you have to live the horror to really grasp it. People imagine water in familiar terms: the deep end of a swimming pool, or the waves they cruise atop on boogie boards.
But storm surge is more like being dropped in the open ocean as swells crash around you. The water rises — and rises. It tosses huge chunks of furniture, vehicles and roofs, battering any buildings that manage to stay standing.
Year after year, meteorologists say they try, and fail, to get people to hide from the wind but run from the water.
As Hurricane Ian edged toward Florida, some Fort Myers Beach residents remained ever-skeptical of the forecasters’ grand pronouncements. Bonnie Gauthier wanted to stay on her island, where she worked as a server at a Greek restaurant. Every other Sunday, the owner brought her blueberry donuts or muffins — her favorites.
The day of the hurricane, the gregarious 59-year-old walked to a friend’s house in Fort Myers Beach, just blocks away.
She armed herself with a weapon known to many storm-hardened Floridians: a stiff drink. Together with three friends, she made the calculation that a two-story house would be safe.
The gulf began swallowing streets outside. One woman posted videos to Facebook.
“Shit,” Bonnie can be heard saying in the background of one of the videos.
By 1 p.m., their footage showed pieces of buildings floating by.
Soon, the home where Bonnie took shelter cracked under the pressure. The water coursed through the house and swept the group out, scattering them in the surf.
When the flooding receded, a neighbor began a frenzied search. Bonnie’s friends turned up alive.
But she didn’t. They found her body the next morning at the end of the cul-de-sac. One friend believes she tried to cling to a tree.
They covered her with a sheet, then waited for officials to pick her up.
The flood washed away Bonnie’s house, her collection of Swarovski crystal and family photos.
“There’s no keepsakes,” said her niece, Samantha Thomas. “There’s nothing left for all of us to even be able to give to her grandsons or her son.”
There’s only the jewelry she was wearing when she died. Ankle bracelets. A ring.
Friends planted a cross, fashioned from wood splintered by the storm, near the place they found her body. It says “F.M.B.” for Fort Myers Beach, and:
“Loving mother, grandmother, friend to all.”
Surveying the loss
Search and rescue crews, surveying the barrier island, were still finding bodies a week after the storm made landfall. They planned to stay for as long as it takes.
Tired and sweaty, they followed dogs trained to detect human remains. They poked broken broom handles into the piles and tossed aside wooden beams and shingles. They called for help when they smelled something foul. It could be an open fridge. Or another body.
They had no idea how many people they were looking for. Some, they hoped, were alive, hiding in attics or stuck in stilted homes where stairs washed away.
The rescuers peered into windows and holes in fractured roofs. Orange tags dangled from the dented and flipped cars they had already searched.
Twisted metal, indiscernible, gleamed in the sun, crushed like a can under a boot. The storm had blasted apart people’s lives, and now the miscellany of seafront cottages was scattered in wet heaps.
More than 300 people from multiple states were part of the effort. The crews, led by a task force out of South Florida, picked their way over dirty mattresses, past upturned sofas, over wires and broken glass.
On a recent afternoon, a team from Texas gathered by a pile of ruins where a trained dog had signaled someone might be hidden.
One member walked around the rubble with a chainsaw, another held a pry bar.
The dog hadn’t confirmed that anyone was trapped inside. The searchers would have to see.
They surrounded the wreckage, a half-circle of gray shirts and white helmets.
They began to throw boards off the pile. They didn’t know what they’d find.
Wilson reported from Ave Maria and Pine Island; Sampson from Fort Myers Beach; Barnes and Peace from St. Petersburg. Times staff writers Christopher O’Donnell, Hannah Critchfield, Eli Murray, Langston Taylor, Douglas R. Clifford and Jefferee Woo contributed to this report.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
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?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.