FORT MYERS, Fla. — Joy McCormack stood across the road from a stretch of mobile homes, townhouses, and condos now completely covered in knee-deep flood waters.
She watched her neighbors wade to and from their homes, hoping to salvage something from the wreckage. She wondered how her home in the nearby Iona Ranch mobile home had fared after Hurricane Ian, but knew the devastation likely took it as well.
“I think mine is going to be a total loss,” McCormack said. “It’s the only house I have and if it’s gone…”
She trailed off.
For Mitch Stough and his brother Mike, Fort Myers Beach was their livelihood. Now, it’s been utterly destroyed.
“It’s leveled,” Mitch told The News-Press, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Fort Myers Beach, along with Lee County’s other barrier islands, took the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s assault on Florida’s coastline. The storm, a Category 4 when it made landfall, sent 150 mph winds and a towering storm surge tearing through the town’s center.
Fort Myers, boasting a population of more than 92,000, is a popular city for tourists and spring breakers. The nearby small coastal town of Fort Myers Beach, filled with beach-side bars and hotels and resorts, sits on skinny Estero Island, making it more vulnerable as Ian pounded the region. The town has a population of nearly 6,000.
The cities and towns there were some of the first areas to receive a lashing from the storm. Other areas of the state are still seeing heavy rains and haven’t broken free of Ian’s grip yet. Local officials and President Joe Biden say the storm is likely to be historically deadly and costly.
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Mitch and Mike Stough sheltered on the third floor of the Estero Island Beach Club, where Mike worked. From there, they had a front-row view of the chaos. Waves poured over Estero Boulevard, demolishing the lower floors of buildings and carrying away vehicles, they said. Their car went flying.
Mitch, who worked at the landmark Lani Kai resort, said the storm surge stripped the vacation spot’s first floor to its structural elements.
“There’s nothing there,” he said. “Fort Myers Beach is gone.”
A couple of miles out, boats could be seen thrown against road guardrails, ripped from their storage yards the previous night. Closer to the Matanzas Pass Bridge, entire marina buildings were shattered, wooden docks twisted and splintered. Sheriff’s deputies blocked access to Estero Island, saying the bridge was unsafe to cross.
On San Carlos Island, rows of houses were savaged by winds and water, shingles stripped, windows shattered. A boat blocked the middle of the road, dragged out of a driveway by the storm. Residents, looking shell-shocked, began the monumental task of cleaning up, picking up pieces of debris from their lawns.
For Mitch and Mike Stough, there was no coming back: They said they planned to move elsewhere.
“There’s nothing here for us. Our jobs are gone. Our car’s gone. There’s nothing open,” he said. “It’s going to take a couple years to get this thing back into shape again.”
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Sanibel Island sees ‘biblical’ destruction after Ian
A few miles west, a chunk of the causeway connecting Sanibel Island to Florida’s mainland had fallen into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people live.
There, the devastation was near total. Aerial video by ABC News shows homes with damaged or missing roofs, some that had drifted off their foundations, and rows of houses surrounded by water from storm surge.
“Sanibel is destruction…it got hit with really biblical storm surge,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
He said efforts were underway to bring those who remained on the island to safety. Two people were confirmed dead on Sanibel Island, officials said Thursday evening, part of the total death toll of 14 in the state, though the number is expected to rise dramatically.
Further south, the historic beachfront pier in Naples was destroyed, with even the pilings underneath torn out. “Right now, there is no pier,” said Penny Taylor, a Collier County commissioner.
Stan Pentz heard the boom of the stormwater rushing into his Iona Ranch mobile home in Fort Myers on Wednesday loud and clear. He said the water rapidly rose up the canals outside his home before bursting through his sliding doors. Pentz held onto the blinds, desperately trying to get out while his home quickly filled with water.
Once out, the current dragged him up and around his home to some bushes, where he stayed for three hours. The debris slammed into him until he could swim toward a building for shelter.
He’s already been to his house to try to save what he can but it’s no use since “it’s all underwater.”
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Contributing: The Associated Press