Hurricane Ian — the storm that could fit 2004’s powerful Hurricane Charley into its own eye, made 2017’s Hurricane Irma look like a junior varsity version and turned 1960’s Hurricane Donna into a very distant memory — changed Southwest Florida forever on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
While previous hurricanes wreaked their havoc over the course of an hour or two, Ian spent pretty much all of Wednesday destroying almost everything in its path.
Ian killed at least 100 people, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said. But Ian also knocked out most high-speed modes of communication. It caused widespread internet, power and cell phone outages, making the scope of death and destruction unknowable — for now.
The downed communications meant friends and family members out of Florida were left waiting and waiting for responses that their loved ones were safe.
At HealthPark Medical Center in south Fort Myers, the region’s largest hospital lost its drinking water supply, its plumbing and its power. It also for a few hours Wednesday lost the use of its first floor and its parking lot, both of which were filled with water. At least 200 patients were being transported to other medical facilities.
Before WINK News — Gulfshore Business’s TV partner — lost the use of its satellite, there were glimpses of the devastation. Chief meteorologist Matt Devitt and co-anchors Lois Thome and Chris Cifatte delivered information to viewers — right up until they couldn’t anymore late Wednesday afternoon. That’s when Ian’s surge sent Billie’s Creek spilling into the Broadcast Center’s newsroom with ankle-deep high water that also claimed the power and satellite capabilities.
Ian’s path began Wednesday morning offshore of Naples and Collier County, which received a record amount of storm surge. Fort Myers Beach then felt Ian’s wrath as the storm turned San Carlos Boulevard into a river. It turned a Lee County Sheriff’s Office temporary building into a boat, one that floated down what used to be a street adjacent to the Margaritaville Resort construction site. It destroyed the Fort Myers Beach Hooters, and it flooded the entire first floor of the Lani Kai hotel.
Ian then crossed over Sanibel and Captiva Islands, engulfing both of them into its eye, which measured about 30 miles from end to end. The scope of the damage there is not only unknown at this time, but it’s unimaginable.
Part of the Sanibel causeway detached and collapsed into the water below, leaving the islands exactly that: Islands.
Up next: Pine Island and Cape Coral, which both experienced Ian’s 154-mile-an-hour winds. Ian then veered north into Charlotte County, which took years to recover from Charley only to endure Ian.
Although Ian’s eye did not peek into downtown Fort Myers, it sure looked like it did. At Centennial Park, Ian dislodged chunks of concrete from where they sat for decades. Then Ian sent storm surge, floating those concrete chunks about 50 yards before depositing them to rest near an under-construction playground at Centennial Park.
“The water came up about five houses in from the river,” said Trey Peters, who lives off Shadow Lane, which runs from McGregor Boulevard, across the street from the Fort Myers Country Club, and ends at the Caloosahatchee River. “My buddy’s house got flooded.”
Peters is in the tile roofing business. He evacuated his house for Ian and stayed in east Fort Myers, at the Veranda. The roofing business is set to take off, but Peters seemed far from happy about that. Before anybody ever had heard of Hurricane Ian, orders on roof tile supplies were running nine months behind.
“There’s going to be a lot of insurance,” Peters said. “A lot of waiting. A lot of blue tarps. It’s going to be a nightmare for a lot of people.”
For Bob and Dorothy Richardson, who live around the corner from Peters just three houses from the river, their nightmare began around 4 p.m. Wednesday. That’s when Ian’s surge crossed the street, climbed the three steps and flowed inside their wood-floor home.
“We kept waiting for the winds to stop,” Bob Richardson said. “The wind never stopped. I’ve lived in Fort Myers for 70 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. During Hurricane Donna, the water went out of the river.”
Dorothy Richardson thought she was prepared.
“This was not my first rodeo,” she said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Bob Richardson, 81, still works as a certified public accountant.
“This was the perfect storm,” Richardson said. “The water came up on our house, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. It just happened very, very fast.”
In downtown Fort Myers, Ian deposited boats that were floating along the riverfront on the street front instead. They were lined up along Joe’s Crab Shack restaurant.
There was one semblance of normalcy downtown. The smell of fresh pizza wafted about Hendry Street. Downtown House of Pizza, located on the ground floor of a building built in 1912, did not lose power and reopened for business at noon Wednesday. By 1 p.m. Thursday, DHOP had a line out the door and down the sidewalk.
“It says a lot about our spirit,” said Kevin Schoensee, who owns the Patio de Leon building. “We’re going to work hard. We can’t be beat. We’re all going to come back from this.”