SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. –
Rotten fish and garbage litter the streets of Sanibel Island. On land, debris from washed up houses piled up like matchsticks. Giant shrimp boats are docked amid the remains of a mobile home park.
Fred Szott said: “Think of a snowball. Pick it up and shake it – that’s what happened.”
Over the past three days, he and his wife Joyce have been making trips to their damaged mobile home in Fort Myers, cleaning up after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
For emotional turmoil, he said: “Hold it, or you will lose it”.
Just offshore, residents of Florida’s devastated barrier islands are also returning to assess damage to homes and businesses, though access to some areas is limited.
The broken causeway leading to Sanibel Island may not be cleared until the end of the month. Meanwhile, residents like Pamela Brislin arrived by boat to see what they could pick up.
Brislin weathered the storm, but is haunted by what happened next. When she checked a neighbor, she saw the woman crying. Her husband passed away, his body lying on the picnic table until help arrived. Another neighbor’s house caught fire. The fire was so great that it forced Breslin to do what the storm couldn’t – run away with her husband and a neighbor’s dog.
The death toll related to the storm rose to at least 101 on Thursday, eight days after the storm made landfall in southwest Florida. According to a report from the Florida Medical Examiner Commission, 98 of the deaths were in Florida. Five people were also killed in North Carolina, three in Cuba and one in Virginia.
Ian is the second deadliest hurricane to hit the US mainland in the 21st century after Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in 2005. The deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States was a major hurricane. Galveston in 1900 caused many deaths 8,000 people.
Ian, a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 150 mph (240 km per hour), brought heavy rains and widespread flooding and damage. The great flood turned the streets into swift rivers. Backyard water lines spilled into residential areas, sometimes more than a dozen feet (3.5 meters) long, knocking boats onto beaches and roadways. The beaches disappeared, as rising seas pushed the coastlines inland.
Sanibel Island ordered a complete curfew after the storm passed, allowing search and rescue teams to do their job. That means residents who have evacuated the island are technically blocked from returning.
But the city of about 7,000 people began allowing residents to return from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday. City Manager Dana Souza told residents in a Facebook Live stream that he wishes the city had the resources to provide transportation but for now, residents will have to arrange private boat visits.
Pine Island is closer to the mainland than Sanibel, but it was also hit hard by the storm.
Cindy Bickford’s house still stands. Much of the damage was due to flooding, which left a thick layer of rancidity on her floor.
“It’s not something we’re worried about. It’s our community,” said Bickford, who arrived for the first time on Thursday.
She hoped that many things could be salvaged.
“We’re going to tear the house apart so we can live in it,” said Bickford, who wears a T-shirt that reads “Relax”, “Refresh” and “Innovate”.
The storm caused billions of dollars in damage and killed dozens of people, most of them in Florida. Even a week after it passed, officials warned that more deaths could still be found as they continue to examine the damage.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, at a news conference Thursday in the town of Nokomis in Sarasota County, announced extensive restoration of water flowing through the storm and power restoration work. About 185,000 customers remain without power, down from a high of more than 2.6 million statewide.
He said rescuers have carried out about 2,500 missions, particularly on barrier islands on the Gulf coast as well as inland areas that have seen intense flooding. More than 90,000 structures have been examined and examined by survivors, he said.
He said residential areas devastated by the storm had shown very good resilience over the past week.
President Joe Biden toured some of Florida’s hurricane-hit areas Wednesday, surveying the damage by helicopter and then walking with DeSantis. The Democratic president and Republican governor pledged to set aside political opponents to help rebuild homes, businesses and lives. Biden emphasized in a meeting with local officials that the effort could take years.
Calvan reports from Pine Island, Florida. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee and Ian Mader in Miami contributed to this report.