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“Total Destruction”: Florida residents endure a night of terror

She is among the millions of people in Southwest Florida who endured a terrifying 24 hours and now realize that their homes and cities will be forever changed by Ian. The massive storm brought near Category 5 winds, torrential rain and storm surges that topped 10 feet. The storm’s fury and its massive rainfall will be felt in most corners of Florida even as it leaves the state and heads into the Atlantic Ocean.

However, no location was harder hit than Lee County, where the storm made landfall on Wednesday. It destroyed bridges, left most of the district without power, 1,300 hospitalized patients had to be evacuated from local hospitals, and a growing fear that search-and-rescue missions will result in staggering death tolls.

“I lost everything I own,” said Representative Spencer Roach, a Republican whose district is part of Lee County. “I have two pairs of jeans, four shirts and a pair of shoes to my name. Everything is gone.”

Roach made the last-minute decision to drive the “white knuckle” to his brother’s home on Florida’s Atlantic coast at 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night as the weather rapidly deteriorated. But he said he stayed in touch with his neighbors throughout the night when Ian vandalized his Waterway Estates neighborhood.

Many who stayed behind huddled on the top floor of the only two-story house on his street, hoping the rising tide would not reach them.

“As of last night, the last communication I had with them was that people from the neighborhood were huddled on the second floor just watching as the water rose around them,” Roach said. “Everything is flooded. All. All houses are flooded.”

The region was hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Charley in 2004, widely considered the worst in recent memory. But early assessments make it clear that Hurricane Ian is the new answer to the question, “What was the most devastating hurricane in Lee County?”

“I’ve been in Lee County for almost 30 years and I’ve experienced a series of hurricanes, and this was unique because it just took forever,” said State Senator Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who covers the coastal sections of Lee County’s hardest-hit areas represents . “[Hurricane] Charley rolled through it, but it moved quickly. It hovered over us for hours, wreaking havoc everywhere.”

Pictures and video of locations in and near Fort Myers show those areas have been nearly completely wiped out, but officials have yet to count things like injuries or deaths. President Joe Biden said Thursday early reports indicate “a significant loss of life” from the storm, although five deaths in Lee County, six in Charlotte County and one in Volusia County were first reported late Thursday.

“We won’t know the total death toll until people are on the ground and have a better sense of who stayed and who was evacuated,” Rodrigues said. “We have confirmed two at the moment and based on what I see that number will increase and is likely to be significant.”

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno told ABC’s Good Morning America early Thursday morning that he believes the death toll in his county could be in the hundreds — though he admitted he didn’t have confirmed numbers.

“This will be a life changing event for the men and women who respond,” he said. “You will see things you have never seen before.”

During a briefing Thursday morning at the state emergency response center in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the death toll in the hundreds was not yet confirmed and crews were just beginning to assess the damage.

Determining who is trapped in their homes and conducting search and rescue operations is the immediate goal of counties across the region, most of which have also suffered severe damage from the storm, particularly in coastal areas hit by a record storm surge were besieged.

Brian Gleason, the communications coordinator for neighboring Charlotte County, said about 900 calls were waiting for emergency workers as the storm subsided and they were able to begin assessing the damage.

“There were still a lot of people in town,” he said. “I think we had good compliance [with evacuation orders] based on the traffic we saw but there were people who thought their structures were in good shape and decided to hang out.

Although much of the worst damage was concentrated in Lee and Charlotte counties, the entire Gulf Coast of southwest Florida has been badly hit and is facing a massive cleanup.

“I looked around and saw nothing but total destruction,” said Barry Gordon, who survived Hurricane Ian at his home in Venice, Sarasota County. “Things here are terrible – terrible – almost impassable roads.”

Gordon wrapped parts of his home in Kevlar blankets, which he said protected much of it from flying debris. He said Ian’s strong eye sat over his community for seven hours before the slow-moving storm finally moved on. He watched the high winds and rain from behind one of the large protective blankets draped over his pool’s birdcage.

“The power of nature alone is incredibly believable,” Gordon said. “Pretty much everyone has stuff off their rooftops.”

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