Residents trapped in swaying apartment block as hurricane hit Ft. Myers
FORT MYERS, Fla. — The road to Fort Myers is littered with power boats, yachts and jet skis – including by its ‘Welcome’ sign – in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian which smashed into the coastal city Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, leaving it decimated and unrecognizable.
City officials had handed out evacuation orders the day before the the storm hit, but some residents stayed, believing the hurricane would hit further north, as forecasters predicted.
Robert Negrin, 74, and his wife Jane, 65, rode out the storm in their 24th floor apartment overlooking the Caloosahatchee River, which was shaking as it got battered by the storm on Wednesday night.
“Our building was swaying” when Ian hit, Robert said.
“We had water in the tub for our toilet, which was sloshing around. It was frightening.”
When the couple realized Hurricane Ian was going to hit them directly instead of Tampa Bay, it was too late to leave.
“We couldn’t get a hotel room, the gas stations were out of gas and we were told the highways were packed,” Robert said
“Once the hurricane path changed it was too late to leave,” Jane added.
The hurricane made landfall around 3pm as a category 4 storm, with 150mph winds.
Now, their high-rise’s plumbing is out and the elevators weren’t working as of Thursday afternoon. Boats from the Fort Myers Yacht Basin were blown as far as Robert and Jane’s apartment.
“The boat came from down the street,” Robert said Thursday, pointing to the costly power catamaran stranded on the concrete driveway of his apartment building.
Ian travelled northeast after hitting Fort Meyers, Cape Coral, and the surrounding areas Wednesday, hitting Orlanda and then Jacksonville. The monster was downgraded early Thursday to a tropical storm, then regained hurricane strength as it travelled over the warm Atlantic water towards Georgia and the Carolinas.
President Biden declared a major disaster in Florida, enabling federal aid to the hardest-hit areas, like Lee County. He warned Thursday it “could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
“Numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life,” he said while speaking at the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“While the water is receding, don’t go outside unless you absolutely have to. It’s risky for you and it impedes first responders from doing their job,” the president added.
The Lee County sheriff said Thursday he feared “hundreds” were dead in the region, which includes Ft. Myers, but later appeared to backtrack. A death toll of at least 13 for Lee and neighbouring Charlotte counties was later reported.
Meanwhile, locals are picking up the scraps left behind in Ian’s wake.
Hamza Rashid, 29, whose dad owns eight gas stations in the Fort Myers area, was constantly turning drivers away Thursday because there was no power to operate the gas pumps.
“People are still coming round asking if we’re open. How could we be in open?,” Rashid said at one of his dad’s gas station, which is now covered with mud.
“None of our eight gas stations have power,” he said. “We have a gas station at Fort Myers Beach that was submerged underwater.”
Rashid and other workers were trying to work out who owned an abandoned Ford pickup truck wedged under collapsed awning beside the gas pumps.
“I’d like to know whose vehicle this is, because they really need to move it,” he said.
Many residents remain unsure if and how they are going to pick up after the storm.
“I have lived here 32 years. I have lived through [Hurricanes] Andrew, Charlie and Irma but I’ve never seen a hurricane like this,” said Gavin Oihus, 60, who was overwhelmed by the cleanup effort ahead of him when he returned to this home Thursday in the Dean Park neighborhood of Fort Myers.
Oihus’ yard is covered in downed plam branches and there is a power transformer sitting on his front lawn.
“It was horrible. It went on forever. Just when you thought you were catching a break, it all got started again. I have never, ever felt wind gusts like we had,” he said of the storm. “I have never seen a hurricane so catastrophic.”
Oihus estimated he would be cleaning debris away from his home for weeks.
Biden reminded Floridians Thursday that they are entitled to significant compensation from the federal government if their homes were destroyed.
“Folks in Florida who have destroyed or damaged homes and you don’t have enough insurance, it means the federal government will provide individual assistance of $37,900 for home repairs and another $37,900 for lost property — for everything from an automobile to a lost wedding ring,” he said.
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