Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian pounded southwest Florida, once-exclusive Fort Myers Beach has become a nearly deserted disaster zone, with destroyed beach houses marring the postcard views that made this stretch of the Gulf Coast famous.
The town of Estero Island, which faces the Gulf of Mexico, was one of the hardest hit by the Category 4 hurricane, which killed more than 100 people in Florida when it hit last week.
Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Fort Myers, has a population of 5,600 people who live in bungalows and posh multistory beach houses. Many of the retirees who live here have second homes in other parts of the country.
The island’s soft, white sands and teal waves now provide a stark contrast to rows of pastel storefronts missing walls and windows, a landmark pier stripped to its piles, crushed beach houses, and foundations swept entirely clean of the houses that once stood on them.
A series of concrete steps leads to nowhere at one address. Furniture, plumbing fixtures, and drywall are all over the place.
Rescue teams led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States are conducting a second round of door-to-door searches for survivors, armed with dogs and cameras mounted on extending poles.
“It’s going to be a long recovery,” said Ignatius Carroll, a representative of FEMA’s Florida Task Force 2, a search-and-rescue unit.
“Did you notice the house debris?” During a tour of Fort Meyers Beach, Carroll asks, pointing to a house with a front yard piled high like a junkyard. “That came from over here from another house.”
Although many people in hurricane-prone areas stock 72 hours’ worth of food and water, the first 48 hours after a disaster hit are critical for finding survivors, Carroll said. Even so, depending on their provisions, it’s possible to find people days later.
Steve Duello, 67, a retired grocery store executive from St. Louis, was devastated to see the damage to his Fort Myers Beach home for the first time since the hurricane hit on Tuesday.
Despite the fact that he has been coming to the beach since he was 14, his ruined house filled with 8 feet of water during the storm, and Duello is unsure whether he will rebuild.
“It’s much too early.” Our guts have been ripped out right now. I never want to go through that again. “Fort Myers Beach looks like Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” he said, referring to Japanese cities where the United States dropped atomic bombs during WWII.
Another island resident, who did not want to be identified, stayed through the storm and has no plans to leave.
“I adore this location. “I don’t want to live anywhere but here,” said the elderly, deeply tanned man, who was dressed in shorts and no shirt.
“My daughter wishes to pick me up and transport me back to New York. I’m not interested in going.”
President Joe Biden will meet with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during his visit to the state following Hurricane Ian. Biden and first lady Jill Biden boarded Air Force One on Wednesday morning, en route to Fort Myers, one of the state’s most severely damaged areas. There, Biden will meet with the Republican governor, a frequent political foe, as he and first lady Jill Biden assess the damage caused by Ian’s storm.