Linda Robertson, Zachary T. Sampson, David Ovalle
As Ian continued its destructive trek across Florida, over a million households across the state awoke on Thursday without electricity as residents and emergency crews along the Gulf Coast began to assess the toppled buildings, flooded streets and crippled infrastructure.
Across Southwest Florida, where Hurricane Ian made landfall as one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, the scenes of devastation were jarring. While there were likely to be deaths across Florida — at least one man was reported killed in Deltona — the number was unclear on Thursday morning.
A chunk of the causeway to Sanibel Island, the normally idyllic barrier island, was completely severed, making passage across the water impossible. Exactly how many people, if any, remained stranded on the barrier islands was unclear. The mainland road leading to the causeway was folded up like an accordion, a spiral staircase deposited by the winds into the brush next to a pickup truck.
In hard-hit Cape Coral, emergency crews were trying to clear roads on Thursday morning as pipeline damage forced the city to shut down its water system. Officials urged residents to boil water and drink bottled water.
In downtown Fort Myers, boats that had been docked in the river sat in a jumble in the parking lot of Joe’s Crab Shack, hulls ripped open.
“I’ll take a snowstorm over this any day,” said Natalie Mathweg, who on Thursday morning was walking two dogs with her sister and father. They slogged through thick, gooey mud and over downed trees, street lamps and telephone poles. They’d just survived their first hurricane after moving to Florida from Wisconsin last year.
“Our first one and the worst Fort Myers has ever seen,” father Neil Mathweg said.
One TV correspondent, Brian Entin of News Nation, reported that water had receded from downtown Fort Myers but power was almost entirely out. “Had to drive around several boats on the road,” Entin tweeted.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais late Wednesday predicted there would be fatalities. “I am sad to tell you that while we don’t know the full extent of the damage for Lee County right now, we are beginning to get a sense that our community has been, in some respects, decimated,” Desjarlais said, according to the Ft. Myers News-Press.
To the south in Marco Island, another popular vacation spot, police early Thursday reported that msot of the roads were no longer flooded but roads were blocked by abandoned cars. “Teams are attempting to move them,” the police wrote in an Instagram post. “Public Works worked through the night removing trees from roadways. Utilities are still out. Cell phone coverage is intermittent.”
A Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ian made landfall on Wednesday afternoon at Cape Cayo, a small island north of Captiva, then again north of Punta Gorda on the mainland. With winds of 155 miles per hour — nearly a Category 5 — the storm battered Southwest Florida, tearing buildings off their foundations, submerging streets and tearing boats from their moors.
The storm also delivered a punishing blow to Florida’s power grid. Florida Power & Light’s CEO said Wednesday that some sections would have to completely rebuilt, given the ferocity of the wind and water damage. At one point on Wednesday, more than 2 million customers were without electricity; on Thursday morning, as of 7 a.m., the company was reporting nearly 1.2 million customers without power.
Ian, by Thursday morning, had weakened to a tropical storm but nevertheless hammered portions of Florida’s central region with winds near 65 miles per hour and torrential rain.
In Apopka, about 20 miles northwest of Orlando, an uprooted tree toppled onto one family’s home, causing rain to seep into the cracked ceiling. A television reporter with WESH-2 rescued a woman whose car got trapped in floodwaters in Orlando. One local Orlando lake overflowed early Thursday, submerging sidewalks and streets.
In Volusia County, between Orlando and the east coast, the sheriff’s office reported that man died after he was discovered in a canal — he’d ventured out during the storm to drain his pool.
Ian delivered its destruction as Florida was already grappling with a long-faltering homeowners insurance market. In a state where costs for homeowners have skyrocketed and 14 companies have stopped writing new policies in recent years, the state-backed insurance company of last resort has already delivered an early estimate of at least 225,000 claims and $3.8 billion in damage from Ian.