SANIBEL ISLAND, Florida (AP) — Rotten fish and trash litter the streets of Sanibel Island. On land, debris from washed away houses piled up in the canal like matchsticks. A large shrimp boat perched amidst the remains of a mobile home garden.
“Think of a snowball. Pick it up and shake it — that’s what happens,” said Fred Szott.
For the past three days, he and his wife Joyce have been traveling to their run-down mobile home in Fort Myers, cleaning up after Hurricane Ian hit the Florida Gulf Coast.
As for the emotional turbulence, he said: “You either endure it, or you lose it.”
The hurricane-related death toll 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’s Commission, 92 of the deaths occurred in Florida. Five people also died 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 behind Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in 2005. The deadliest hurricane to ever hit the US was Hurricane Great Galveston in 1900 which killed as many as 8,000 people.
Residents of Florida’s devastated barrier island are starting to return, assessing damage to homes and businesses despite limited access to some areas. Pamela Brislin arrives by boat to see what she can save.
Brislin survives the storm, but is haunted by what happened after. When he checked the neighbors, he found the woman crying. Her husband had died, his body lying on a picnic table until help arrived. Another neighbor’s house caught fire. The fire was so big that they forced Breslin to do what the storm couldn’t — flee with her husband and the neighbor’s dog.
Ian, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 150 miles per hour, sent torrential rain and caused flooding and extensive damage. The flood turned the streets into rushing rivers. Backyard drains overflow into neighborhoods, sometimes over a dozen feet (3.5 meters), throwing boats into yards and highways. Beaches disappear, as ocean waves push the shoreline deep inland. Officials estimate the storm has caused billions of dollars in losses.
The damaged causeway to Sanibel Island may not be impassable until the end of the month. Officials on the island have ordered a total curfew after the storm has passed, allowing search and rescue teams to do their job. That means evacuated citizens are technically blocked from returning.
The city of about 7,000 began allowing residents to return from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday. City manager Dana Souza told residents on a Facebook Live stream that he hoped the city government had the resources to provide transportation but, for now, residents would have to arrange visits by private boats.
Pine Island is closer to the mainland than Sanibel, and temporary repairs to the causeway were completed on Wednesday.
But the island was hit by a storm. Cindy Bickford’s house still stands. Most of the damage came from the flooding, which left a thick layer of rancid dirt on the floors. He hoped that many could be saved.
“We’re going to tear down the house so we can live in it,” said Bickford, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “Relax,” “Refresh” and “Renew.”
“It’s not our stuff that we’re worried about. This is our community. Pine Island is very close,” said Bickford, who arrived Thursday for the first time.
Jay Pick says the island still feels disconnected from the outside, and a bit chaotic.
“People are trying to do the right thing and help people, but other people step up and take their gas cans and steal generators,” he said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, at a press conference Thursday in the town of Nokomis in Sarasota County, praised the widespread restoration of water flowing through the storm-hit zone and efforts to restore power. About 185,000 customers remain without electricity, down from a state high of over 2.6 million.
He said rescue workers had carried out about 2,500 missions, mainly on barrier islands on the Gulf coast as well as in inland areas that experienced severe flooding. More than 90,000 buildings have been inspected and searched for survivors, he said.
He said populated areas devastated by the storm had shown great resilience over the past week.
President Joe Biden goes on tour several hurricane-hit areas in Florida on Wednesday, observed the damage by helicopter and then hiked along DeSantis. Democratic presidents and Republican governors pledged to set aside political rivalries to help rebuild homes, businesses and lives. Biden stressed at briefings with local officials that the effort could take years.
Calvin reports from Pine Island, Florida. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee and Ian Mader in Miami contributed to this report.