Dozens of Florida residents left their flooded and splintered homes by boat and by air on Saturday as rescuers continued to search for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Ian, while authorities in South Carolina and North Carolina began taking stock of their losses.
The death toll from the storm, one of the strongest hurricanes by wind speed to ever hit the U.S., grew to more than four dozen, with 47 deaths confirmed in Florida, four in North Carolina and three deaths in Cuba. The storm weakened Saturday as it rolled into the mid-Atlantic, but not before it washed out bridges and piers, hurdled massive boats into buildings onshore and sheared roofs off homes, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
The bulk of the deaths confirmed in Florida were mostly from drowning in storm waters, but others from Ian’s tragic aftereffects. An elderly couple died after their oxygen machines shut off when they lost power, authorities said.
As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwestern coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and head of the National Guard, told the Associated Press while airborne to Florida.
Chris Schnapp was at the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers on Saturday, waiting to see whether her 83-year-old mother-in-law had been evacuated from Sanibel Island. A pontoon boat had just arrived with a load of passengers from the island – with suitcases and animals in tow – but Schnapp’s mother-in-law was not among them.
“She stayed on the island. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law own two businesses over there. They evacuated. She did not want to go, thinking it wasn’t going to be bad,” Schnapp said. Now, she said, she wasn’t sure if her mother-in-law was still on the island or had been taken to a shelter somewhere.
On Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, houses were reduced to splinters and boats littered roadways as a volunteer rescue group went door-to-door Saturday, asking isolated residents if they wanted to be evacuated. Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as water kept rising.
“The water just kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses – we watched everything just go flying by,” said Joe Conforti, as he fought back tears. He said if it wasn’t for his wife, who suggested they get up on a table to avoid the rising water, he wouldn’t have made it: “I started to lose sensibility, because when the water’s at your door and it’s splashing on the door and you’re seeing how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”
River flooding added a major challenge to rescue and supply delivery efforts. The Myakka River washed over a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-snarling highway closure Saturday on the key corridor linking Tampa to the north with the hard-hit southwest Florida region that straddles Port Charlotte and Fort Myers.
While rising waters in Florida’s southwest rivers have crested or are near cresting, the levels aren’t expected to drop significantly for several days, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming in Tampa.
The Myakka River, he said, is “going to be at major flood level way into the week.”
South Carolina’s Pawleys Island, a beach community about 73 miles (117 kilometres) up the coast from Charleston, was among the places hardest hit by Ian, and power remained knocked out to at least half of the island Saturday.
Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said Friday’s storm was “insane to watch.” He said waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 meters) washed away the pier – an iconic landmark – just two doors down from his home.
“We watched it hit the pier and saw the pier disappear,” said Wilder, whose house sits about 30 feet (9 meters) above the ocean and stayed dry inside. “We watched it crumble and watched it float by with an American flag still floating.”
The Pawleys pier was one of at least four along South Carolina’s coast to be destroyed during Ian’s winds and rain. Portions of the pier, including barnacle-covered pylons, littered the beach. The intracoastal waterway was strewn with the remnants of several boat houses knocked off their pilings.
Traffic was shut off to Pawleys Island’s southernmost point, where crews were working to clear roadways of sand and other debris. The sand will later be redistributed to build back the dunes along the beach front, as happened after a similar event in 2019.
Many of the elevated beach homes still had feet of sand underneath, with dunes completely washed over and nearly flattened.
John Joseph, whose father built the family’s beige beach house in 1962, said Saturday he was elated to return from Georgetown – which took a direct hit – to find his Pawleys Island home entirely intact.
“Thank God these walls are still here, and we feel very blessed that this is the worst thing,” he said of the sand swept under his home. “What happened in Florida – gosh, God bless us. If we’d had a Category 4, I wouldn’t be here.”
In North Carolina, the storm claimed at least four lives and appeared to have mainly downed trees and power lines, leaving over 280,000 people across the state without power Saturday morning, officials said.
Separate vehicle crashes claimed two lives in the storm, the North Carolina officials said, a man drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp, and another man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a closed garage.
The storm’s winds were much weaker Friday than during Ian’s landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast earlier. Authorities and volunteers there were still assessing the damage as shocked residents tried to make sense of the disaster.
“I want to sit in the corner and cry. I don’t know what else to do,” Stevie Scuderi said after shuffling through her mostly destroyed Fort Myers apartment, mud clinging to her purple sandals.
On Saturday, a long line of people waited outside an O’Reilly’s auto parts store in Port Charlotte, where a sign read, “We have generators now.” Hundreds of cars were lined up outside a Wawa gas station, and some people walked, carrying gas cans to their nearby cars.
At Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers, charter boat captain Ryan Kane was assessing damage to two boats Saturday, after the storm surge pushed several boats and a dock onto shore. He said the boat he owns was totalled. He said he couldn’t use it to help rescue people, and it would be a long time before he’d be chartering fishing clients.
“There’s a hole in the hull. It took water in the motors. It took water in everything,” he said, adding: “You know boats are supposed to be in the water, not in parking lots.”